Retrospect: Neutral Milk Hotel – ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’
This past Sunday night, a small scale dream came true for me. A dream which I thought would never become reality. I got to experience something I had convinced myself I never would. I saw Neutral Milk Hotel at The Tabernacle in Atlanta. Not just Jeff Mangum, which was something I was fortunate enough to see two years ago, but the entirely regrouped Neutral Milk Hotel. It was a very emotional show for me, as “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” NMH’s final album and arguably one of the most important albums of the ‘90s, is one of the most affecting pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
The story behind the album is a sad one, as is the case with most art worth a damn. It began when Jeff Mangum, the creative force behind Neutral Milk Hotel, came upon a copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and ate up every word. He then spent a few days weeping over Frank’s story followed by weeks dreaming of having a time machine with which to rescue her. Mangum was tormented by night terrors, so to avoid them, he would often stay up all night writing songs; such was the case when he set out to work on “Aeroplane.”
Everything I have ever read about the process said that Mangum felt possessed while writing this album and that some of the ideas and images he produced were actually startling to him. He had to get this story out of his system, even if he wasn’t in complete control of it. At one point, on the title track, Mangum sings, “Anna’s ghost all around; hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me.” This may have been a warning sign of things to come for the young songwriter.
The album was released late in 1997, and slowly began to garner interest from fans and critics alike. This was more than just another album; this was a work of such raw emotion and poignant honesty that listeners were finding themselves deeply connected to it. The band was immediately taken into a world of popularity and spent the majority of 1998 on the road in the States and Europe promoting “Aeroplane.” Then, suddenly, they just… dissolved. NMH members slid into other musical projects and Jeff Mangum disappeared into seclusion. REM offered Neutral Milk Hotel the opportunity to open for several shows the band was playing in Atlanta, and Mangum simply said “no,” citing a desire for sabbatical. Mangum fell further and further into reclusion until he landed smack in the middle of a paranoia-influenced nervous breakdown. In an interview, his girlfriend at the time shed some light on the situation, saying that he sat at home all day in old slippers doing absolutely nothing and hoarding rice for the Y2K scare. It was a sad portrait of one of the ‘90s arguably greatest songwriters. For all accounts and purposes, this was the foreseeable end of Neutral Milk Hotel.
Thankfully, this story’s ending isn’t quite as dim as its body. In 2011, Mangum sheepishly, quietly set out to make things right with his fans. He played a slew of captivating solo acoustic dates over the course of a couple of years, and then earlier this year dropped the bombshell that for the first time in almost 15 years, Neutral Milk Hotel would hit the road over the summer and fall. Since the announcement, the tour keeps getting bigger and bigger, which is getting no complaints from, well, anyone.
I would place “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” in the top five albums of all time. That’s simply my opinion. While I would welcome new songs from Mangum, I hope this is the last work we ever get with the name Neutral Milk Hotel on it. It’s in good hope that he will stick around for a while this time. Pick up “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” on vinyl, it’s the best way to experience it.