Retro Review: Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

By Walter Price

Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 swan song In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was/is considered an instant classic by many listeners and critics alike. Jeff Mangum’s multi-directional, layering; genre bending, lyrical intrigue and sounds exploration caused many a repeat button to be worn out and for good cause.

But not everyone felt that way. Rolling Stone’s Ben Ratliff had some other thoughts, “The lyrics on In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, his (Jeff Magnum) second album, are fertile, heaping, onrushing; most of the music is scant and drab, with flat-footed rhythms and chord changes strictly out of the beginner’s folk songbook.” he says in his overview. Not to mention he takes digs at the all-time classics from the get go, I suppose for good measure, to set the tone or perhaps, he likes his Rock N’ Roll by the numbers. Yacht rock was then and is again popular…Just sayin’.

Not to worry, the album is still worth adding to / keeping in your collection and all is well. Check NMH’s tour dates HERE.

 

By Ben Ratliff

Rolling Stone 1998

Those two great overgrown gardens of American mainstream pop, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, have had oddly different effects on their admirers. Looked at one way, the albums responsibly connect with old American idioms — the marching band, the parlor song — and also open the door to new reaches of sound. In another way, they give off the wrong message, burying the hard gem of songcraft under layers of bizarreness.

Jeff Mangum, who goes by the name of Neutral Milk Hotel with or without musical collaborators, was one of those seventies kids touched by Brian Wilson and Lindsey Buckingham. Unfortunately, Mangum went straight for the advanced course in aura and texture, skipping basic training in form and selfediting. The lyrics on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, his second album, are fertile, heaping, onrushing; most of the music is scant and drab, with flat-footed rhythms and chord changes strictly out of the beginner’s folk songbook. Elsewhere, in “The King of Carrot Flowers Parts Two and Three,” the clattering drums, trombones and impasto of underwater guitar fuzz mask the absence of a decent melody.

Like others in the loose syndicate of bands with roots in Ruston, Louisiana, and known to fanzine-scourers as the Elephant Six collective, Mangum prizes the homemade aesthetic. Unlike his first record, On Avery Island, much of Aeroplane has only his acoustic guitar for accompaniment. He sings loudly, straining the limits of an affectless voice; his lyrics carry the innocent piety of the early Beats, with semireligious visions and a pre-electronic-age feel: medicines, Sunday shoes, holy rattlesnakes and the above-mentioned king of carrot flowers.

Rock’s been crippled by narcissistic irony, and it needs re-greening by exactly Mangum’s type: naive transcendentalists who pop out of nowheresville. But don’t alert the MacArthur awards committee yet. For those not completely sold on its folk charm, Aeroplane is thin-blooded, woolgathering stuff.

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