Welcome to Album Battles! This is a series where I will be choosing two albums with meaningful similarities and yet marked differences, and evaluating the strengths of each one before coming to a conclusion about which is greater. This time around, I’ve chosen Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (released 1998) and Arcade Fire’s Funeral (released 2004). Besides being indie albums released near the turn of the millennium, Aeroplane and Funeral deal with a lot of the same themes—family, young love, growing up, and ultimately mortality. In addition, both take a similar emotional approach. They’re earnest, they’re vulnerable, and they deal with huge emotions. However, there’s a lot separating these two phenomenal records. The most obvious factors are genre and style. Aeroplane, while still definitely rock and roll in places, has a lot of folk in its DNA as well, and its arrangements use a lot of horns and acoustic guitars. In addition, its recording generally has a distinctly lo-fi quality to it. Funeral, meanwhile, is full of stadium-sized ballad rock drawing from U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, or even Journey (though with a good deal more violin than those bands). (I would argue that Funeral is a more intelligent and meaningful album than any recorded by the aforementioned bands, but that’s beside the point.)
I’ve always found that covert art is a good place to start when analyzing albums. It betrays the values held by the creators when putting the album together, and therefore can give valuable perspective on its artistic aims. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has a rather famous cover. The (supposedly) maternal figure is the most striking part of the image, apparently having some sort of sliced vegetable for a head. The nautical setting grants something of a nostalgic mood, but the bizarre woman warps the picture, turning it into a past that never was, an abstracted memory. Funeral has a much simpler cover. The central image is a writing hand, whose pen has leaves growing from its feathers. It calls to mind the saying that a good writer can “bring a story to life.” Funeral is a more narrative album than Aeroplane, so this is rather fitting. There are no faces or bodies on this cover, which makes sense, given how abstracted the narratives tend to be. Aeroplane, meanwhile, was written about a specific real-life story (that of Anne Frank, if you’re unaware), and as such has visible people on its cover. However, Aeroplane’s cover is generally more off-putting than Funeral’s, which fits with its novel, even alien, arrangements. Funeral is rich and innovative, but it speaks a more familiar musical and lyrical language than Aeroplane, and is therefore probably more accessible to new listeners.
As said before, both Aeroplane and Funeral deal with massive, broad emotions. There is one key difference in how they convey those feelings, however. Aeroplane is by and large a personal album. It primarily grapples with lead singer Jeff Mangum’s real feelings for Anne Frank, and Frank’s own tragic story. “I know they buried her body with others / Her sister and mother and five-hundred families / And will she remember me fifty years later? / I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine” The album ventures into the bizarre and abstract at times, but remains grounded in something very real. Funeral, meanwhile, has no consistent plot or characters. It names names at times (“Alexander, our older brother,” “Alice died in the night”), but primarily deals with faceless figures, paper dolls acting out epic stories. Take the song “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” one of the best tracks on Funeral. It covers two young lovers and their coming of age, but the two leads are never named, never placed in time and space, never defined beyond their runaway story. This isn’t to undercut the power of the song, not at all. Indeed, the magic of “Tunnels” and of Funeral at large comes in great part from their universality. The boy who digs “a tunnel / from my window to yours” could be your neighbor, could be your friend, could be you. Where Aeroplane draws greatness from the heartbreaking reality of its subjects, Funeral draws it from the ability of the listener to lose themselves in the stories and messages.
And now, the part of the show where I take one of the most representative songs from each album and dissect them on a specific level. In the green corner, representing Neutral Milk Hotel, we have title track “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. In the orange corner, representing Arcade Fire, we have enduring anthem “Wake Up”. Both are among the sweetest arrangements on their respective albums. “Aeroplane” centers around a simple acoustic strum, while “Wake Up” makes famous use of a whoah-oh choir. The two songs serve similar functions—they’re the doubter’s tracks, the ones to win over casual music fans who might not be into the stranger sides of both albums. They’re both phenomenally good at this job, though, and are just great songs all around.
The lyrics to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” start off rather humbly, coming off as a basic love song (“What a beautiful face I have found in this place”), before throwing the listener unexpectedly into a larger perspective (“that is circling all round the sun”). This confluence of the small-scale and personal with the universal and philosophical is the core of the song. “Wake Up” begins with a legendary verse, using powerful imagery (“Something filled up my heart with nothing”), but, like “Aeroplane”, grounding it in the bluntly personal (“Someone told me not to cry”). It’s worth noting that the two openings move in opposite directions—”Aeroplane” from simple to heightened, and “Wake Up” from heightened to simple.
In both songs, the title phrase is introduced near the beginning of the second verse. “And one day we will die and our ashes will fly, from the aeroplane over the sea.” The actual title phrase seems incidental, coming off as a mere accoutrement to the casual assertion of mortality. Meanwhile, Arcade Fire lead singer Win Butler plays the role of a preacher, issuing the title of the song as a spiritual command. “Children, wake up. Hold your mistake up.” The message is murky, intentionally so, but the energy behind it is all too clear. It’s a song meant for arenas, for screaming masses, where “Aeroplane” is meant to make you cry in your bedroom with your headphones on.
The most memorable moment on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea occurs at the beginning of the second track, “King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3”. Mangum warbles out “I love you Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ I love you”, making those ten syllables last a full eighteen seconds. His voice is pure, indescribable, uncontainable emotion. Again combining the personal (“I love you”) with the universal (“Jesus Christ”), he sings not with traditional technique or prettiness, but with nothing but raw love. It’s one of the finest vocal moments in contemporary music, up there with the intro to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the chanting on “Once in a Lifetime”.
The most memorable moment on Funeral (which was harder to determine than on Aeroplane, as Funeral is far more concerned with cohesive songcraft than with quotable moments) comes in the final track, “In the Backseat”. After introducing the basic lyrical themes of the song in the first two verses (“I don’t have to drive,” “My family tree’s / losing all its leaves”), “In the Backseat” throws both a lyrical and a musical curveball. “Alice died / in the night,” says singer Régine Chassagne, as a heavy electric guitar comes in under the violin that had previously dominated the track. The sudden appearance of death and the electric guitar both come as a surprise to the listener, but also both carry a certain inevitability. They grow naturally out of the beginning of the song, but in an unanticipatable way, mirroring Arcade Fire’s views on growing up and dying.
While the primal yell of “King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3” carries an unmatchable power, the sudden escalation of “In the Backseat” is the work of technical masters. These relative strengths are reflected throughout both albums (not to say that Aeroplane lacks technical artistry, nor that Funeral is wanting for emotional resonance). One moment is the unrestrained voice of pure feeling, while the other is a grand invention by grand inventors.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and Funeral, at their core, are both albums that grapple with transience, the idea that our lives are fleeting and will ultimately be forgotten by the universe. However, the outcome of said grappling is different for each album. Aeroplane beats impermanence and comes out on top, taking the position of immortality. “I know that she will live forever, she won’t ever die.” Funeral, meanwhile, allows for transience, even celebrates it. “If the children don’t grow up, our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.” Both albums are wildly optimistic, but in different directions. Aeroplane sees the ripples of history as the source of meaning in life. Anne Frank’s memory will never die, and thus she is immortal. Funeral, though draws that meaning from cycles of life. As they see it, growing up and getting old and ultimately dying is our purpose, and it is a glorious one.
I have to admit: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea resonates with me personally more than Funeral. However, in delivering a decision here, I have to take more factors into account, and while both albums would be in my list of the ten greatest of all time, I must give the edge to Funeral for tighter songwriting, greater instrumental skill, and more universal appeal.