In Praise of Aeroplane (In Search of Lost Sound Part III)

Jun 16 2009 Published by under Music

I bought Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea years ago and have enjoyed it for most of those years (took a few listens to get it, but I got it fairly quickly).  Still, I never really LISTENED to it until about two months ago.

By LISTEN, I mean actually sitting down, not doing anything else, just LISTENING to it listening, the kind of listening I reserve only for the absolutely greatest music I’ve ever heard in my entire life.  Now, I love music and have for a very long time, but albums I will drop everything to LISTEN to are rare.  There was Bob Dylan’s Biograph, a few Stones albums (definitely Exile, possibly Beggar’s Banquet), the first Tricky album, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa, most everything by Boards of Canada and Sigur Ros and William Basinski, The Conet Project, and Joanna Newsom’s Ys.  And now Aeroplane.

A LISTENING experience is an intense one.  It will dominate my life for a few days, as I play the album over and over again, studying each nuance, each lyric.  When I’m not listening to the album, I’m thinking about it or singing it (either aloud or in my head, depending upon whether I’m alone or not).  I’m still in the midst of the Aeroplane experience, and I thought I’d share my thoughts about the album while I’m consumed by it, perhaps as a way both to understand its hold over me and as a reminder for future me why I spend this particular week in 2008 falling over myself about an album from 1998.  To do that, I’ll need to back up a bit–and return to something I started writing last year, a summary of my personal musical history.

I first got into music seriously in 1983, and all the stuff I described in the earlier “In Search of Lost Sound” posts) took place in late 83 and the first part of 1984.  My musical education really accelerated later that year, however, when I spent two months in Iceland as an exchange student.  The music that Iceland listened to that summer actually turned out to be the music that would be popular in the US later that year and the next year–stuff like Depeche Mode, Wham!, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and so on.  But what made Iceland unique for me was that it gave me a chance to learn that the pop music that I had been listening to was only part of a larger and more interesting musical universe.  It was in Iceland that I learned about REM and other, more interesting bands that would dominate my musical experience later on.

Actually, I didn’t listen to a lot of REM or similar music while in Iceland (I was more into Wham and that other crap), but once I got back to the USA in the fall I started paying closer attention to music and started experimenting with new and interesting artists.  My first real find in this avenue of exploration was REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction, their third album.  Yes, I got the 3rd album first and then went back and got the first two.  Actually, I still think Fables is pretty great, even though it was dismissed at the time as a letdown.  From REM (actually, from reading articles about them), I learned about The Replacements, The Minutemen, Husker Du, and Richard Thompson (Joe Boyd, who produced a lot of Thompson’s work–starting with the Fairport Convention years–produced REM’s Fables).

The years 1984-86, then, were stellar ones for me (and for music–awesome stuff released during that time).  I spent a lot of time and money learning everything I could about what would be called “alternative” music.  But those were also the years that I discovered the great music of the 60s–both rock stuff like the Stones and Who and Stax/Volt soul music.  By 1988 or so, I was almost exclusively listening to the past.  What I remember of late 80s, early 90s music is Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Public Enemy (not necessarily in that order).  Really, though, I was living in the past for much of that time, fairly confident in my belief that music had already peaked.  Heck, my favorite album of the early 90s was Bobby “Blue” Bland’s Two Steps from the Blues.  Oh, I was also a grad student then, so you know I was a bit of an asshole.

Fast-forward a few years to 1995.  At this point, my interests started moving ever so slowly from classic rock and soul to electronics and computers.  I started designing web pages at this time, and my musical taste slowly moved towards things like Nine Inch Nails and Industrial stuff (like Boyd Rice and Throbbing Gristle), then Tricky and Massive Attack, and then Boards of Canada and their ilk.  This all coincided with my first forays in writing about music (my 25 site, my article on NIN, and my now-defunct Tricky site–which was the first Tricky web site, btw).  It also coincided with my first forays in creating electronic music, as well–mostly crap, but creating music (however crappy) is a really liberating, deeply satisfying experience.  And who cares if anyone hears it or not, right?

From there I started going down stranger and stranger roads, looking for the most experimental and interesting sounding music I could find.  Pan Sonic and Pole were my first forays into this world; they would be followed by the 12k artists, Mille Plateaux and Ritornell works, then even further afield stuff like Central Asian music, Jamaican dub, Chris Watson, Tim Hecker, and the Conet Project.  My focus during all this time was on sound, not music.  I was bored with the cliches of most popular music, fed up with the commercialization of art.  I wanted to hear something new, and I searched the web far and wide for just such experiences.

Which leads me back to Neutral Milk Hotel.  Does it?  Well, yes, it does.  For the past year or so, I’ve gone full circle and returned to the music of the mid to late 90s–your Trickys and Boards of Canadas.  I see this period as my own personal nostalgia period, in the same way that the 80s music is my wife’s nostalgia.  Yes, most people get nostalgic for the music of their high school years.  For some reason, the music I am nostalgic about actually came out 12 years after I graduated from high school.

1998, in particular, is a special year, both for me personally and for the music I love.  That’s the year I got my PhD, the year I got married, and the year I got my first decent job.  It’s also the year of Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children, Air’s Moon Safari, Bola’s Soup, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Tricky’s Angels with Dirty Faces, and, of course, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Aeroplane. That’s a damn good year in music, by the way.  The late 90s was a critically under appreciated period.

Now, unlike all the other works I just listed, I didn’t hear NMH for the first time until probably 2001, and I didn’t LISTEN to the work until recently.  So it’s fresher for me than those other works that I LISTENED to so long ago. So what am I hearing while I LISTEN to this album over and over again today, 10 years later?

I hear a voice, first off.  Jeff Magnum’s voice is amazing.  If his voice were a color, it would be a pinkish-red, like a skinned elbow with a trickle of blood oozing out from a raw, wet wound.  His voice is all emotion, completely removed from irony and critical distance.  Everything he sings, no matter how weird (“tomatoes and radio wire”) or how real (“I loooooove you Jeeesus Chriiiist”), is sung with pure, unadulterated honesty.

I also hear a guitar, an acoustic guitar that is so fuzzily distorted that it sounds as though the strings will break at any moment.  Those two things–Jeff’s voice and his fuzzed guitar–are the core of the album’s sound.  They mesh together beautifully, as if the guitar itself were embedded in Jeff’s belly or something.

For a long time, that’s ALL I heard on this album–a voice and a guitar.  As I started LISTENING, I started to pick up on the intricate production here, like the wonderfully moribund horn sections on songs like “Fool” and “Holland, 1945” or the really amazing electronic effects that float in and around songs like “Untitled.”  All those people who think this is a folk album just don’t get the awesome production at work throughout.   There’s some amazing drum work here, some wonderful electric guitar, some rather fascinating use of odd and obscure instruments (like the euphonium) that provide essential touches to make each song memorable in a uniquely different way.  Oddly, when I would just casually listen to the album, the rockin’ “Holland, 1945” was my least favorite song, even though it’s most people’s favorite.  Only when I started listening to the lyrics did I realize how wonderful the song actually is.

And yes, the lyrics.  That’s what I did when LISTENING to this album, study the lyrics.  As a rule, I find lyrics overrated.  It’s not a coincidence that most of my favorite music is either sung in another language (Sigur Ros or those Central Asian artists) or contain no lyrics at all (Boards of Canada, Pan Sonic, Chris Watson).  I’m a sound guy first and foremost.  But Aeroplane is no ordinary album, and these are not ordinary lyrics.  There’s a deepness to the lyrics that is as close as popular music can come to resembling the power and impact of actual poetry.  The lyrics to most rock songs (even great ones) don’t hold up when read on a page.  Lyrics get their power not from how they read but from how they are sung.

Jeff Magnum sings his lyrics wonderfully–about as well as anyone since Bowie.  But the lyrics themselves are really, really fantastic.  It’s a quasi-concept album about Anne Frank (most familiar with NMH know this), and the references to Frank throughout are haunting, touching, and perplexing–but also far richer than the idea of a Frank-centered album would suggest.

Take this stanza from my favorite song on the record, “Oh Comely”:

Your father made fetuses
With flesh licking ladies
While you and your mother
Were asleep in the trailer park
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums
The music and medicine you needed for comforting
So make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving
And pluck all your silly strings
And bend all your notes for me
Soft silly music is meaningful magical
The movements were beautiful
All in your ovaries
All of them milking with green fleshy flowers
While powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines
Smelling of semen all under the garden
Was all you were needing when you still believed in me

Read it again.  The imagery is truly impressive, from the alliteration of “fat fleshy fingers” and “flesh licking ladies” to the connection of music (plucking “silly strings”) with sexual imagery (“powerful pistons…smelling of semen”).  There’s a true sense of a character stuck in despair (a father out screwing the neighborhood while child and mother are stuck at home) and seeking a release both in music and in the budding awareness of his/her own sexuality.  There’s probably some incest in there, too.  I don’t exactly know what it has to do with Anne Frank, but I’m guessing I’m not supposed to be able to read it literally anyhow.  It’s mood, evocation, inspiration, not logical connection.  That’s what makes it such good poetry.

Still, reading it is not nearly as interesting or as powerful as hearing the lyrics blow out of your speakers, hearing Jeff Magnum cry out “flesh licking ladies” with a mixture of disgust and resignation or hearing him cry out “I love you Jesus Christ” without a hint of irony or self-consciousness.  In the end, that’s what makes this work so great: Magnum’s voice singing these wonderful lyrics to pitch-perfect accompaniment and inspired production.  In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a perfect combination of poetic inspiration and musical interpretation.  It’s brilliant, essential music that hasn’t aged a second in ten years.  I’m guessing I’ll be able to say the same thing in 2018.

Originally published 9/25/08

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