Back when I worked at Waterloo Records, I would stock Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea and think, "This album looks really precious."
The ornate cover art struck me as indier-than-thou, and the mouthy title all but screamed pretension — and that may very well be the case.
In an attempt to burn through some eMusic credits, I downloaded the album in late 2008, and I haven’t stopped playing it since. I loaded it into my iPod, and I’ve not deleted it. It’s still in my CD wallet, and I always cycle out newer acquisitions with older ones.
Sometimes I’m skeptical of near unanimous critical praise. In this instance, I was wrong.
In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea is, in a word, symphonic. There’s no way you can begin at track 1 and not listen to the album all the way through. Clocking in at a brisk 39 minutes, it’s a half-plus hour that doesn’t waste any time.
In the film Amadeus, court composer Antonio Salieri thumbs through a portfolio of Mozart’s works, all original scores, no copies. Salieri marvels at how misplacing one note would ruin the architecture of a piece. That sums up In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea.
It’s not merely an album, or even a concept album. It’s a work onto itself.
Yes, there’s a lot to slobber over in the details of the album. How the bombastic drums sound like they’re ready to implode. How the fuzzy guitars obfuscate a rhythmic pulse. How the horns, accordions and musical saws both ground and unleash Jeff Mangum’s songs. How Mangum’s lyrics evoke more than they actually say.
It also helps that the songs are incredible hummable, despite some wordiness. "Holland 1945", "Oh Comely", "The King of Carrot Flowers" (all three parts) — if these songs don’t make you want to learn how to play guitar just to play them, well …
But how the album casts all those details into a singular whole astonishes the most. Its ebb and flow is something a random button just shouldn’t fuck with.
The structure of In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea gives the same kind of kick I would get out of listening to, say, the later quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich.
Mangum probably didn’t set out to draw that kind comparison, but he did create an album that just does not wear thin with each listen. In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea really is a major work.