Review #376: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel

Karla Clifton
4 min readApr 22, 2023

#376: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel

I’d never listened to any Neutral Milk Hotel, but one person living in this house had. My boyfriend quite literally knew every word, then made me listen to their most recent EP. I’m always so proud when he knows more about a record than me.

Makes sense though, because he’s an indie-head, and I’m not, though of course I’ve found some great indie bands myself. (There are one or two Mountain Goats albums that I’ve fallen in love with.) I had heard of Neutral Milk Hotel but had never given them a try. Probably because they have a horrible band name. I’ll say it.

Neutral Milk Hotel is the brainchild of Jeff Mangum, who hails from Louisiana but recorded his two studio albums at Pet Sound Studio in Denver, CO. This one was produced by one Robert Schneider (not THAT one) who was reportedly stymied by Mangum’s preference for heavy compression and distortion, calling it “frustrating, but I came to enjoy it.”

I was expecting big things from this one, since RS’ Top 500 list doesn’t have too many indie records. But it took me a minute to really get this one — much of it felt like pretty standard indie fare, especially at the beginning, with acoustical numbers like “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” It took me a good ten minutes to come around to Mangum’s voice, which is somewhat nasally and distinctly indie. Final track “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” is also fairly standard. And you gotta love the two twee instrumentals, “The Fool” and “[untitled],” which fulfill an indie tradition.

What eventually won me over was Mangum’s songwriting: he’s a gifted lyricist, churning out beautiful, inscrutable turns of phrase. He’s just as touching as he is surprising. “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3” starts out with the proclamation I love you, Jesus Christ. That’s ballsy, on an album that gets pretty raunchy. “Oh Comely” depicts an adulterous father, who surrounds himself with flesh licking ladies and fruits falling out from the holes. And something about the simple “Two-Headed Boy” broke my heart. The sun, it has passed/ Now it’s blacker than black. I could quote from this album all day, but I’ll spare you.

Interestingly, the primary source material that Mangum draws inspiration from is The Diary of Anne Frank. (Talk about topics I didn’t think I’d have to cover.) Lyrics on virtually every song reference the long-dead teenager — sometimes beautifully, sometimes somewhat creepily. “Holland, 1945” says that she is the only girl I’ve ever loved, born with roses in her eyes. “Ghost” casts her as his paranormal love interest. Then on “Communist Daughter,” semen stains the mountain tops. Um, okayyyy.

No two ways around it, the Anne Frank preoccupation is kind of weird. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson said that Mangum’s admission about Frank “made [his] jaw drop. What the hell? … I felt embarrassed for him at first.” People have written academic articles about whether or not this is “perverse.” My favorite piece was from Newsweek, which went in search of scholars’ opinions on the topic; the scholars all resoundingly said “Who’s Neutral Milk Hotel?” Ah, well. At least Mangum didn’t write anything weird in her guest book.

Unfortunately, Neutral Milk Hotel’s success ultimately destroyed them. (Until they briefly reunited in 2013, just to dissolve again in 2015.) By all reports, Mangum didn’t handle the onslaught of fame well. The band never formally broke up — Mangum basically just stopped returning phone calls. In fairness, he reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown, and started hoarding rice in anticipation of Y2K. This was right at the advent of the Internet, so it makes sense that an indie-minded group wouldn’t be mentally equipped to deal with that kind of exposure.

And maybe because of the hit-and-run nature of this album, Mangum has been the subject of some pretty invasive journalism. Creative Loafing’s Ken Griffis wrote the most notorious piece in 2003, when he tried desperately to track the guy down, despite Mangum’s protestations. Mangum, who had been out of the public eye for nearly five years at that point, finally wrote to him: “Please. I’m not an idea. I am a person, who obviously wants to be left alone. If my music has meant anything to you, then you’ll respect that.” Griffis’ response? “He’s wrong, of course.” Jeez, no wonder the guy went into hiding. (To read the original article, you’ll have to use the Wayback Machine. Maybe they realized how distasteful it was.)

Did I love this album? I really did, but not as much as my boyfriend. Still, I’m a sucker for a record with a good story, and this one has one. People are still picking it apart. But honestly? Leave the guy alone. Even if he did come up with the worst band name in the history of time.

Fun Fact: I’ve never actually read The Diary of Anne Frank. I probably should, but I’m sure it will make me cry. Pitchfork would make fun of me.

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