Will She Remember Me Fifteen Years Later? In The Aeroplane Over The Sea : A Retrospective

By John Dickinson

I was sitting in Wiley Falconer's bedroom when I decided to write a piece on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Standing three stories above Ann Arbor, Michigan in what may as well have been the lighthouse of a not-so-fratty fraternity, I was passed a copy of the album, sealed in cellophane. Falconer is a record collector, an avid fan of all things Mangum, and an educated music fan on the whole, so I was intrigued when he explained to me the reasoning behind the album's mint condition.

"I wanna have something to look forward to at any point in my life," he told me without looking up from the iconic cover art. "I wanna be able to experience opening that, putting it on, and listening to it for the first time again. When I need it." He looked up, "If I found out the world was ending tonight, or if my mom died tomorrow."

It's expected that any modern self-proclaimed music sophist would recognize the first strum of the first F major chord of the first song on that record. It's expected that every rebellious young agnostic can sing along to lines like "I love you Jesus Christ!" with the sort of exuberance that impedes registration of irony. Neutral Milk Hotel has become an ever recognizable name amidst a generation of musical excavators; to those who went searching for the lost relic of the 1990's and, by God, found it.

But the allure of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is often lost on those who take it at face value. Songs on the record are simplistic, usually consisting of the group's main singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum's pallet of acoustic guitars and intrepid hollers. Other instruments are strummed, plucked and kicked to the impassioned fervor of a thousand marching bloggers. Organs and horns flail to the last breath of your favorite lover, who died twenty-five years before you were born. To those accustomed to the magnetism of popular culture, the record is grating and inconsequential.

As they say, ignorance is bliss.

The mystical attraction of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea lies in Mangum's cryptic poetry and vague subject matter. Fans and "experts" alike have tried to dissect the record's lyrical themes for years, attempting to link songs together to divulge a central meaning, concept, or message. The challenge is like reading a novel, the plot to which remains unrevealed; a sort of choose-your-own-adventure that changes with every read. No one theory has yet been accepted by the coalition of listeners, though a few main understandings have been established, such as Mangum's love for Anne Frank:

"The only girl I 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"

Other themes on the record include sexual imagery spun into affectionate poetry, creating a milieu just uncomfortable enough for people to keep coming back to it. Mangum's sexual frustration and surreal imagery mesh together to create lustful vignettes so artfully crafted that they sometimes seem more lovely than carnal.

"Semen stains the mountain tops
With cocoa leaves along the border
Sweetness sings from every corner
Cars careening from the clouds
The bridges burst and twist around"

Mangum's lyrics are more elegant than anything else; a Conrad-esque style of writing in which each word is carefully chosen to contribute to the meter of the work. In recent years, its been difficult for listeners to find a comparable songwriter, one who supplies equal parts ambiguity, rhythmic pulse, and uninhibited cathartic storytelling all compiled in a lo-fi, acoustic, hymnic arrangement of music. This is why many always come back to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea for their fix.

"And that's why the guy lived in seclusion for like a decade. Because people treated him like the fucking Messiah, and it freaked him out. He's just a guy who wrote some incredible music." Wiley Falconer quipped in Mangum's defense. Falconer was referring to the period of time between Neutral Milk Hotel's dissolution and October of 2008, during which Mangum lived as a recluse, playing few shows and releasing little music (virtually none under the name of Neutral Milk Hotel). Mangum's motives for returning to the stage in recent years are not completely known, though steadily rising interest in his live shows has prompted an extension of his current tour for an additional four months.

Wiley and I were four years old when the record was made. So were Michael Stein and Jake Offenhartz. Sean Horner was three years old. Fifteen years following the release of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea people still continue to discover the record in swarms, spreading the album by word of mouth (a little internet hype doesn't hurt either). Some who were seed upon the completion of the record revere and bask in its warmth today as the hear for the first time the impassioned cries of one man. Raw emotion and a telekinetic empathy have played a seminal role in the timelessness of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and will continue to do so as long as people are willing to ponder:

"How strange it is to be anything at all!"