“And from above you how I sank into your soul”
In 1997, an American man named Jeff Mangum picked up Anne Frank’s diary and fell in love. The love he felt wasn’t particularly platonic, either. Mangum developed powerful romantic feelings for Frank, which sounds creepy because it is, but which led to the creation of (and I speak without hyperbole here) one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century.
“I will spit until I learn how to speak”
Mangum was part of an indie folk rock band called Neutral Milk Hotel, with Robert Schneider, Jeremy Barnes, Julian Koster, and various other rotating musicians. The band had released its first studio album On Avery Island the year prior, to a tepid reception and moderate sales. It was their second and final album that would set the indie world on fire and make Mangum immortal. Mangum wrote the lyrics and Schneider was in control of most of the arrangements (so many instruments, most of them acoustic, were used on the album that delving into who played what would be pointless). They enlisted R.E.M.’s designer Chris Bilheimer to alter an old European postcard and create the album’s iconic cover. The project was titled In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and it was released 20 years ago today.
“What a beautiful dream that could flash on the screen in the blink of an eye and be gone from me”
Musically, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea exists apropos of nothing, or at least nothing contemporary. Electric guitar was only used on a couple tracks, and there it was so fuzzy and lo-fi that comparing it to traditional rock would miss the point entirely. Some songs were simple acoustic strum-alongs, while others brought in things like bagpipes, accordions, and singing saws.
“Through the music he sweetly displays”
At the center of 9 out of 11 tracks was Mangum’s unmistakable voice. He warbled like a sickly bird, which turns many people off the album, and yet the songs would absolutely not work with a more traditionally pretty singer.
“The only girl I’ve ever loved, was born with roses in her eyes, but then they buried her alive, one evening 1945”
As mentioned previously, the story of Anne Frank permeates this album. Mangum is concerned with the tragedy of her death, to be sure, but even more prominent here is the beauty of her life. The album finds something powerful, something immortal, in Frank’s optimistic outlook and her capacity for love.
“Semen stains the mountaintops”
One thing that sets Mangum’s lyrics apart from anyone else’s is his use of imagery, imagery that is often striking or even off-putting. Mangum brings sex, the flesh, and the corporeal world into the otherwise high and spiritual songs on this album, adding to its holistic philosophy.
“And will she remember me fifty years later? I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine”
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea resonates so broadly because it really is about more than Anne Frank. It’s about the past and the future and mortality and immortality and tragedy and beauty, all at the same time. Mangum preoccupied himself with eliminating oppositions, showing that the contradictory ideas presented were all really one and the same.
“I know that she will live forever, she won’t ever die”
This album casts a monumental shadow over the indie music that came after, and to a certain degree even mainstream music. The album is often credited with reintroducing folk influences to rock, leading to the emergence of groups like Mumford & Sons or the Lumineers.
“But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave”
Neutral Milk Hotel would disband after this album, and Jeff Mangum would never release another record. They would come back for a reunion tour in 2014, likely the last time this music will be played live by the artists ever. Nonetheless, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea still sells very well on vinyl, and it brings beauty, joy, and hope to people worldwide to this day.