Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dreaming Awake: In the Aeroplane over the Sea

While corresponding with a few fellow art collectors the other day, it came to my attention that many of us share a passion for a record that came out 10 years ago, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane over the Sea. I think one reason so many of us like this album so much is that it's the musical equivalent of the art we love – emotional, symbolic, surreal, arcane, enigmatic, disturbing, passionate, evocative. If it is possible for a musical composition to qualify as a masterpiece of pop surrealism (or magical realism or phantasmagoric neo-romanticism, or whatever you call it) then In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is surely the genre's seminal album.

I won't write about the music, because that's been blogged about by thousands and extensively covered in one of the 33 1/3 books. For anyone who needs any further explanation of the universal greatness of this album, you can find it here and here and here. Over the past decade, Aeroplane has sent many a music reviewer into raptures of poetry and revelations about tear-stained epiphanies. At the same time, Aeroplane spawned Devendra Banhart and the whole freak-folk scene and created a hospitable environment for revolutionary bands like Arcade Fire and The Decemberists.

(If you're not already a convert, you will probably need to download it at this point. Be sure to set it up to play gapless.)

In the words of Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal, "The greatest aspect of the songs on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is that, though they are full of pain and confusion and passion and madness, they never seem self-pitying or self-indulgent. They never become pedestrian. I feel that Jeff Mangum's voice on that record was a portal through which the animal agony and maniac joy of the universal human spirit found amplification."

I think that says what needs saying on that topic.

Since this is ostensibly a blog about art, I thought I'd take the opportunity to address the album art before delving into more esoteric matters. Surely every NMH fan has pored over all the little bits and pieces of ephemera that accompany this album, hoping for some cryptic revelation. The first piece of artwork created for this album was Brian Dewan's "Flying Victrola." Brian, who is also a musician and instrument builder (and a friend of mine) had already done some drawings for another Elephant 6 band, the Music Tapes, and NMH leadman Jeff Mangum soon got in touch with him to see if he'd be interested in drawing something for Aeroplane.

Brian also drew a "Magic Radio" for Mangum, which never made it onto the album, but you can see it in the 33 1/3 book for Aeroplane, should you choose to pick it up. It's a drawing of an old radio spilling out items including fish, an airplane, musical notes, a clock with wings, and a trumpeting angel.

Here are some more revelations about the album art from 33 1/3:

"Bryan Poole, another Elephant 6 member, recalls that Jeff 'was always into that old-timey, magic, semi-circus, turn-of-the-century, penny arcade kind of imagery,' examples of which he’d find in thrift shops on his travels. Among the pieces that Jeff brought to graphic designer Chris Bilheimer was a vintage European postcard of bathers at a resort, and this was the image that Chris — working closely with Jeff — cropped and subtly altered to create Aeroplane’s front cover. The other source material included a book of historic circus posters, a clip art book of cloud formations, Will Hart’s Elephant 6 logo and Brian Dewan’s aerial cityscape.

Although Chris Bilheimer mainly works on computers, his aesthetic is more analog than digital. The disparate images selected for the album design ranged from Brian Dewan’s crisp new drawing to the slightly grubby old postcard. How could all these pieces be given a visually cohesive look? Chris solved the problem by scanning the back of the postcard, and using the foxed, spotted, off-white paper as the background against which all other images were screened. In this way, everything appeared to be about the same age and printed on similar paper, with the overall effect one of slow decay."

Many Neutral Milk Hotel aficionados still dream of the day when Jeff Mangum will come back from his self-imposed exile and record another album just as good as this one, though it seems likely that will never happen.

When I read this 1998 interview with Mangum, his descriptions of the images he sees in his waking dreams made me think that his visions would make very interesting paintings – and the more solitary pursuit of painting might be a less painful career for someone of his delicate temperament. (However, upon perusing his drawings, I decided visual art might not be his forté, after all.)

Here is a description of one of his visions, which he relates to a line from "Holland 1945" – "How strange it is to be anything at all."

"I wake up every morning completely freaked out that I'm in my body. Whatever dream I'm having has something to do with being totally freaked out that I'm in my body, and I usually wake up with a shock... It's also about all the crazy sleep-walking dreams that I have. I have all kinds of crazy hallucinations, and it's pretty strange. I open my eyes and I see things. I've seen spirits moving through the walls. I've seen a vortex coming through the wall. I've seen amorphous little balls of light bouncing all around in the front yard through the window. I've seen giant bugs on the floor. I was in a hotel room in Amarillo, Texas, and all I remember is standing on the bed and seeing the whole wall in front of me filled with lights that were popping like popcorn out of the wall. Then I'll wake up and I go, 'Wow, I was standing on my bed and staring at this wall.'"

These visions from a man who doesn't take drugs... no wonder life became a little too intense for him after Aeroplane thrust him into the arms of an obsessed, adoring fanbase. To hear him talk, you'd think he's almost living on another plane of existence.

"I started writing "Ghost," the song that goes, "Ghost, ghost I know you live within me," because we thought we had a ghost living in the house, living in the bathroom. So I locked the door and started trying to sing to the ghost in the bathroom. But then that was sort of like singing about the ghost that we thought was constantly whistling in the other room that kept waking me up, and then a ghost that may or may not live within myself.

And a lot of the songs on this record are about Anne Frank.
The record doesn't necessarily take place in the period of the Holocaust so much – it's a reflection of how I see that time period. I'm not even sure if time is linear or if it's all going in one direction, anyway. The world is this incredibly blurry, crazy dream that I'm just sort of stumbling through.

A lot of the songs on
Aeroplane really freaked me out, and it took other people to make me be comfortable with them, and to see that it was okay to sing about a lot of this stuff, not to shut them inside. 'Cause it was just too intense."

In 2002, Jeff Mangum was still pondering the mysteries of life.

"After Aeroplane, I felt I needed to take a bit of a harsher look at life, and that's what I did... and to try to deal with the brute facts of the suffering in life, and the joy in life. I'm trying to find peace in the world, as it is. I'm feeling this sort of slow stripping of my mind, like the layers of an onion. I'm starting to see through all these little structures that have been imposed on me by my society that tell me how I'm supposed to view my life and the world. What I'm supposed to find to be important and what is not. Sometimes you see through so much of it that you feel like you're just a leaf blowing on the wind."


Curious Art said...

Another of my obsessions! I remember listening to this album for the first time & feeling shaken to my toes. I've listened to it almost daily ever since. Never tire of it.

Anonymous said...

Amazing artwork for an amazing piece of art, as In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is. I would ove to find that Magic Radio drawing, I simply love it as much as the album artwork itself.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am an Italian fan of Neutral Milk Hotel. Me and my girl have a blog related to NHM and Jeff Mangum (, where we basically translate lyrics, articles, interviews, etc.
Would it be ok if we translate your post in the near future? It's pretty interesting, and it's related to the artwork which is an aspect of Aeroplane that isn't cover very much around the web. Of course we will give you attribution and link your original article.

Let me know :)


I'm happy to have you translate the article into Italian for your website. Just make sure you keep all the links that lead back to the original interviews that I took the quotes from. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi there!
We translated your article, you can find it here:

Thanks a lot!