Desert Island Album #4: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea


The album cover:

An old-time sort of drawing of a faceless girl waving goodbye to a boy. Behind them is the sea, in which we see several other children either swimming or drowning, depending on your interpretation. The cover was designed by Jeff Mangum, the dominant creative member of the band, and Chris Bilheimer, who also designed album covers for R.E.M. (Mangum lived in Athens, Georgia, much like R.E.M., when he wrote the album.) Mangum was obsessed with The Diary of Anne Frank, and Frank’s presence hovers over many of the songs on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. As such, it’s hard to see the girl as anyone but Frank, an interpretation that, for obvious reasons, would lead one to believe the children behind her are drowning.

The first sound you hear:

The strike of an F-chord on an acoustic guitar, as Mangum launches into the simple yet beautiful three chord progression of The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1. This album was released in 1998, but I discovered it in 2004 or 2005, when I was working part time at an indie bookstore in the Bay Area. My good friend Brian, who worked the Saturday night shift with me, put In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on the store’s stereo, and it took less than five seconds for me to look over at him and say, “What is this? I love this.”

The last sound you hear:

The album ends with Mangum slowly strumming the outro of Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2 and singing, “Don’t hate her, when she gets up to leave.” Mangum’s voice, raw and nasal and just barely in key, seem to hang in the air long after the song fades out, the words a goodbye to the girl (Anne Frank?) that the Two-Headed Boy (Mangum?) is in love with.

Track by Track:

King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1 features that beautiful guitar cut, backed from the second verse on by a strangely haunting accordion (I think). The lyrics paint an evocative picture of a fractured adolescence, redolent with familial dysfunction (“Your mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder/And dad would throw the garbage all across the floor”) and sexual longing (“As we would lay and learn what each others’ bodies were for). The best known part of the song is perhaps the final vocal note, when Mangum sings “Dad would dream of all the different ways to die/Each one a little more than he could dare to tryyyyyyyyyyy.” It would be obnoxious of me to put in the properly representative number of y’s there, because Mangum really does seem to hold the note forever.

That two-minute masterpiece leads, with no pause between tracks, into the album’s most divisive song, The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3, a song which begins with Mangum singing, at extreme volume, “I love you, Jesus Christ/Jesus Christ I love, yes I do.” I always took the lyrics for being ironic, but according to the excellent 33 1/3 book about the album, it’s actually a genuine expression of Mangum’s faith. Following the intro, the song breaks into a fast, heavily distorted romp full of psychedelic imagery, including melting dogs. To be honest, I’ve never really known what to make of this tune, accept that it fits into the dichotomy of innocent faith and sexual desire that permeates much of the album.

Of course, what follows is the title track, perhaps the most beloved Neutral Milk Hotel song (when I saw Mangum play in Oakland last year, it was the song that got the loudest audience response–and this was an audience that sang worshipfully along with every song). In the Aeroplane Over the Sea starts with a simple acoustic guitar strumming a waltz (it’s somewhat similar to the Beatles’ You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away), and as with The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1, it’s augmented by several interesting instruments–pipes, some kind of horn. The lyrics are sweet (What a beautiful face/I have found in this place/That is circling all round the sun”) but come to be cryptic (“And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea.” It’s the first song that explicitly references Frank (“Anna’s ghost all around/Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me”) and the beautiful face Mangum is trying to hold on to is almost certainly hers.

Anne Frank

Anne Frank

The next song is the punk influenced Two-Headed Boy, which features Mangum heavily pounding acoustic chords as he paints a lyrical picture of lust: “We will take off our clothes/And they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine.” The song gradually slows and turns sad, as the boy’s lover ends up,”floating and choking with her hands across her face.” Two-Headed Boy leads, again seamlessly, with no pause, into The Fool, a horn-driven instrumental which recalls, for clear reasons, a funeral dirge.

After The Fool fades out, we get the quickly struck first acoustic chords of one of the album’s finest and most famous tracks, Holland, 1945. This is a clear reference to Anne Frank, who was Dutch and who died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945, a few months after her family was discovered hiding above her father’s factory in Amsterdam. It’s an uptempo but tremendously sad song that begins “The only Girl I’ve ever loved/Was born with roses in her eyes/But then they buried her alive/One evening 1945/With just her sister at her side/And only weeks before the guns/All came and rained an everyone,” a reference to Frank dying shortly before the allies liberated Bergen-Belsen. I can’t really talk rationally about this song–I’m sorry, but if you don’t like it, you’re not a good person.

The high-minded reference to Frank gives way to Communist Daughter, a song which is less than two minutes long and will have you singing along the refrain, only to have you realize you’re walking down the street singing “Semen stains the mountaintops.” It’s another instance of Mangum moving from his idealization of faith and innocence (Holland, 1945), to sexual impulse.

The next track is the epic, eight minute Oh Comely, a song with aggressively sexual lyrics early on (“Your father made fetuses, with flesh-licking ladies” … “The movements were beautiful all in your ovaries” … “Smelling of semen all under the garden”). There’s then a short interlude before the lyrics return, this time with a distinct Anne Frank overtone: “I know they buried her body with others/Her sister and mother and 500 families/And will she remember me 50 years later/I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine” that gives way to another interlude, this one with another horn instrumental, before the final verse, once again with sexual content: “But now we move to feel/For ourselves inside some strangers stomach/Place your body here/Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine” before the outro. It’s such a bizarre, unique song that I really can’t think of an equivalent in rock music.

The next song, Ghost, once again refers to Frank with the lyrics, “And she was born in a bottle rocket, 1929 … I know that she will live forever/She won’t ever die”. It’s another fuzzy song, full of sub-lyrical Mangum wailing and yet more horn instrumentals.  This leads into Untitled Track, a bagpipe (among other things) instrumental, which is just so bizarre yet at the same time strangely appropriate.

The album closes with Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2, a beautiful, plaintive acoustic song reaching for the comfort of a child with his parents (“Daddy please hear this song that I sing/In your heart there’s a spark that just sings/For a lover to bring a child to your chest that could lay as you sleep”). A later verse brings up the image of a lost lover (“And in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying/As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet/Rings of flowers ’round your eyes/And I’ll love you for the rest of your life when you’re ready”). Interestingly, the flowers around the eyes image is one Mangum used in one of the earlier songs about Anne Frank, Holland, 1945. The song continues with a cry for God (“When we break we’ll wait for our miracle/God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life”) and closes with a bizzare yet haunting final verse: “Two headed boy she is all you could need/She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires/And retire to sheets safe and clean/But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.”

The signature track:

It’s neck and neck and neck between The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and Holland, 1945. The last is probably my favorite, but given that it’s the title track and it got the loudest response from the crowd when I saw Mangum, I’d have to go with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

The signature lyric:

A tough choice, given the wealth of strange psychedelic images and the fact that there are several songs on this album that have completely captured the imaginations of a devoted following. I’ll defer to Mangum, who when I saw him live, simply started strumming the chords to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and let the audience sing the first few lines: “What a beautiful face/I have found in this place/That is circling all round the sun/What a beautiful dream/That could flash on the screen/In a blink of an eye and be gone from me/Soft and sweet/Let me hold it close and keep it here.”

But if I’m being honest, my favorite lyric is every single word in Holland, 1945. I won’t reprint them here, but it’s perfect.

The essence of the album:

It’s one of the strangest albums you’ll ever find, in part because its creator is a weird dude. A fragile, sensitive native of a small Louisiana town, he freaked out following the success of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and disappeared from the public eye for more than ten years, neither recording nor performing, until he reappeared in October 2011 by playing a show for the Occupy Wall Street Protestors in New York.

The album is so interesting because it illustrates a mind vacillating between sensitivity and aggression, innocence and lust, faith and sadness. Mangum seems like he had some tie-ups about his sexual impulses (there’s a song called Song Against Sex on NMH’s first album, and it’s not too hard to figure out what the term “two-headed boy” is referring to), and he also seems like he’s trying to reconcile these impulses with feelingw of pure admiration and love for the innocent victim Anne Frank. It’s a fascinating, disturbing dichotomy that plays out in a fuzzy, lo-fi, horn infused musical atmosphere.

Aside from these interesting elements, I connect with the album on a very personal level: My grandparents were Holocaust survivors. I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in 2009, and to this day it is one of the most surreal, indescribable, horrible, beautiful, important experiences I’ve ever had. I bought a picture of Anne Frank at the museum, and it’s still on my wall today. There’s a lot of literature and film related to these sort of experiences, but very little music that addresses it. I don’t actually want there to be any more: I don’t want Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift telling me how to feel about Auschwitz. But it’s nice to be able to put on Mangum’s strange, gorgeous opus and know that someone who has no familial connection to the Holocaust can identify with it and be deeply moved by it, to the point where he can create his own deeply moving meditation on it. That, beyond any other reason, is why In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of my desert island albums.

Find all my Desert Island Albums here.

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