Friday, September 25, 2009

Neutral Milk Hotel, "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"

Song: "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"
Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel
Album: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Written by: Jeff Mangum
Year: 1998
Key: Em
Classification: SF2
Lyrical content: the ghost beckons; the heart yearns for that which it does not know
Where used: bridge

I've spent much of the past few weeks immersed in Our Noise: The Story Of Merge Records, commemorating the 20th anniversary year of the label, so the time seems exactly right to talk about Neutral Milk Hotel. And yet. There's been so much said about In The Aeroplane Over The Sea over the years that I almost don't know what else I can add. I can, however, point you to Glenn McDonald's heart-stoppingly great review (one of my two favorite record reviews of all time) and Taylor Clark's excellent Slate piece tracking the whereabouts of the man who pulled a perfect album out of his head and decided, well, maybe that's enough of that. So let me just say this: it seems more obvious as the years go by that this fever dream of a record is one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Less obviously, it should also be mentioned that it is a fantastic album to run to.

That said, I've always had a hard time excerpting from it. So many songs bleed into one another that trying to put something from it on a mixtape, for instance, requires that you either cut the music flat dead at the end of the track or include more than one song. And the problem with that is that you end up with a run of three or four songs in a row, in which case, why aren't you just burning the whole album? It's not just the lack of clean gaps between tracks, though. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is an album that practically demands to be listened to in a single sitting. The second time I put it on, I had intended (as is my habit) to listen to two, maybe three songs, just to get a sense of them individually outside the flow of the album; the next thing I knew, Jeff Mangum was putting down his guitar and exiting the studio. I once saw someone posit that the album emitted, and I quote, "hypno-rays" while it played. It's not the least plausible theory I've heard.

One of the only songs that's even remotely self-contained is the title track, where we first meet the ghost that haunts Mangum over the course of the album. It's a testament to how subtly and cannily he uses the SFCP that despite the fact that I got In The Aeroplane Over The Sea not long after I first identified the SFCP and listened to it Lord knows how many times in the ten years since, it still took one of the commenters to this blog for me to actually notice that it was sitting right there in the bridge. (Thanks, Benjamin.) I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, since Mangum's accomplishment with In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has nothing to do with inventing radically new chord progressions and everything to do with what he did with them. (It's worth noting right here that the verse progression is also a mainstay: the archetypal doo-wop I-vi-IV-V, albeit used quite differently.) In a way, that's one of the album's strengths: the way Mangum takes a fistful of basic chords and transforms them in a kind of alchemy into a musical narrative that I still haven't fully gotten to the bottom of more than a decade on.

Full song: Neutral Milk Hotel, "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song

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