So I've been listening to Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. In the last few weeks I've had four people, including my pastor and my daughter's cute little Italian gay friend, tell me in totally unrelated conversations that this album is the Greatest Album Ever Made, that it has Changed Their Life, and other hyperventilating things that music fanatics tend to say several times per week. I understand. I pat them on their cute little hipster heads and encourage them to simmer down. Pitchfork, that bastion of arch musical cluelessness and snarkiness, rated it a 10.0 out of 10.0, to my knowledge the only "perfect" album they've ever reviewed.
I will admit that I did not listen to this album for years because of that Pitchfork review. I want to shove banana cream pies in the faces of Pitchfork reviewers. Out of general principle, I tend to disdain whatever they praise. It just makes it easier to maintain my sanity. Plus I'm wary of the mythologies that surround Insane Songwriters Who Record Their Magnum Opus Then Are Locked Away In A Padded Room stories, a la Syd Barrett. But look, when your pastor tells you that something is really great, you start thinking that maybe there is some higher spiritual principle at work, and that your future sanctification may be at stake. So I listened to the album. And I've kept listening to the album.
And you know what? It's pretty great. It's not The Greatest Album Ever Made, but it's really, really good. I'm feeling holier already. Plus, it's hugely entertaining in a crazed, unhinged way.
Jeff Mangum, the aforementioned insane singer/songwriter here, made this, his second album, in 1997. Then he disappeared. Now he's a demented hermit somewhere, perhaps in a cave, where his fingernails are six inches long. And people eat this stuff up. It's National Enquirer for Hipsters fodder. So I was prepared to be cynical. But the songs won me over, primarily because they're utterly unpredictable and yet still rooted in an easily understood pop framework; catchy, hook-filled guitar rock until, say, a Turkish marching band crashes the proceedings, as happens in several songs. And the lyrics are absolutely harrowing. There's a song about Anne Frank called "Holland, 1945" that will break your heart. There's a song about young, passionate love that degenerates into a remembrance of dear old mum plunging a fork into daddy's shoulder. And yes, Mangum does sound crazed, spitting out the lyrics, veering off key so frequently that it gets alarming, but sounding like he's so intensely locked in that he has no choice but to careen out of control. It's spooky -- and surpringly moving -- stuff.
So I'll ignore the fact that the guitar chords are right out of the Mel Bay Beginning Guitar book, and that anybody with two weeks practice can play these songs. And I'll ignore the fact that one of these songs is a nine-minute folk tune with two chords. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a fascinating, grim, and occasionally exhilarating ride.