When it comes to bands that have a jagged history, few come close to Neutral Milk Hotel. In between the squabbles and mental breakdowns it seems amazing that they succeeded in making such a meteoric dent in the alt-rock genre of late 90s American rock. But they did. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea turned out to be the band’s major breakthrough, but the pressures that came with attention and relentless touring schedule that came with a hugely successful album bared its load on the output of the band, and especially on the mental wellbeing of lead singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum, who allegedly had a fully fledged breakdown just six short months after the album’s release. But that doesn’t make the visceral nature of the songs any less effective.
The album was created as a concept album about the experiences of holocaust victim Anne Frank, and the two-step tempo of the trumpets and drums on tracks like ‘The Fool’ and ‘Oh Comely’ gives the album a certain ceremonial feel, which is entirely fitting. Listening to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea fifteen years after it was released is a stark reminder of how relevant the songwriting is and how inventive Mangum’s lyrics are. From the first bash of the acoustic guitar on opener ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers pt. 1’ it’s clear that this was an album that was created solely for the people creating it, like a cathartic private escape. It just so happens that the album hit a zeitgeist championed by bands like R.E.M. (in the early days) and Wilco. The album became greater than the sum of its parts.
The songs on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea have been covered by the likes of The Dresden Dolls, The Mountain Goats and Frightened Rabbit and the album continues to be an underrated sellection of wildly energetic melodies brought to the fore with the urgent vocal stylings of Mangum. Neutral Milk Hotel sadly went on indefinite hiatus shortly after In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was released (the band even turned down an extremely lucrative support tour with R.E.M.) but In The Aeroplane Over The Sea remains an epitaph to a band that understood the value of creating genuinely affecting music, no matter what the cost.