by Neutral Milk Hotel
Released February 10, 1998 via Merge Records
Reviewed March 1, 2023
Top tracks (based on community voting)
Holland, 1945 (69%), In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (69%), Two-Headed Boy (31%)
The second and final album from Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is one of a select few albums whose name almost transcends the music itself. Released in 1998, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea wouldn’t gain the cult following it has now until a few years later with the rise of Pitchfork and message boards/forums such as 4chan’s /mu/. It was a perfect album to gatekeep in the early days of the internet; it was lo-fi, abstract, and, quite frankly, a little bit weird at times with its occasional references to Anne Frank.
But it was also raw, beautiful, and poetic in a way that made it an album you felt the urge to share with those closest. And nowadays, if you find yourself among any music community like those that drove much of the reappraisal of ITAOTS—whether that be RateYourMusic, r/indieheads, or elsewhere—it has become akin to a rite of passage for many.
Neutral Milk Hotel originally began as a solo project of Jeff Mangum before expanding to the four-piece heard on ITAOTS. Nonetheless, the group’s second album is still a vehicle for Mangum’s surreal songwriting. Coupled with his raw and heartfelt delivery, ITAOTS delivers stories that are meant to be felt, more so than to decipher.
After recording the first Neutral Milk Hotel album, On Avery Island, Mangum read The Diary of Anne Frank. This impacted him deeply and you can see it pop up in the songwriting of tracks like “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost,” most notably. Frank’s story can be linked to other moments of ITAOTS, but the stream of consciousness approach we see in Mangum’s songwriting extends beyond this—perhaps to lengths we’ll never get concrete answers to. Cryptic, abstract, and ambiguous are tales of the “Two-Headed Boy,” sexual awakenings, love, and more. Religious undertones also peer through, but the only discernible and overarching theme throughout seems to be a loss of innocence—an inevitable experience of life.
And while Mangum’s songwriting makes up much of the mystique surrounding ITAOTS, the musical side of it is just as unique. With tempos ranging from the likes of a funeral march to those of a typical punk band, Neutral Milk Hotel move between tender intimacy and barreling momentum. Mangum’s guitar playing is front-and-center, bringing simple chord progressions with layers of distortion—then combining it with similarly fuzzy organs and bass guitar for good measure. What throws a wrench in all this relatively standard combo of instruments is the band’s use of digital horns, a singing saw, pipes, and more. It’s familiar enough to be warm and comforting, but with just the right touches to differentiate itself and be a bit disorienting to a first-time listener.
Few albums garner the status of an album like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and for good reason; few albums stand out as so wholly unique. – Dominick (9.5/10)
The world of semen-stained mountain tops, carrot flower kings and two-headed boys is a place where secrets sleep in winter clothes, a place where flesh-licking ladies make fetuses. If none of this is making any sense, then you're in the right place; these feelings of head-scratchery come with the territory. Emanating a vagueness rarely found, along with a strong sense of cohesion and thread that pulls itself forward, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea exists in a space that you could call its own. Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum, sings of things that, on the surface, seem within reach, but the more you delve into said things the further they twist and contort out of reach. There's an art to it; it takes a real talent to evade everything and hit head-on at the same time. What is the exact meaning behind the words? Who knows. You tie the bows where you like, you pull the sense out of it. – Peter (9/10)
Jared: 10/10 | Dominick: 9.5/10 | Peter: 9/10 | Cam: 8.8/10
There are great albums and then there are great pieces of art in the album format. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of those masterfully cinematic pieces. The track list is loaded not only with songs that serve the album’s flow and dynamism, but also with unbelievable examples of capturing moments. There are so many rolling hills of primal expression caught on tape in a perfect atmosphere.
ITAOTS not only features dense and boisterously colorful instrumentation, I feel it’s one of the greatest works of lyrics in recorded music. Happy 25th. – Alec Lee (10/10)
ITAOTS sees Jeff Mangum spiritually guide listeners through life, death, and everything else in between. The brutally raw vocals, multi-layed symbolism, and detailed songwriting/instrumentation makes this one of the most poignant album releases in history and will forever be the most “human” art can get. – @smells.like.sheen.spirit (10/10)