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Fabulous, but not for everyone
on January 16, 2002
Let's pretend, for a moment, that you're listening to Aeroplane for the first time, having heard nothing at all from this alternately praised and despised album. The first thing to notice is the faintly catchy acoustic strumming of "King of Carrot Flowers, part 1". In bursts a slightly nasal voice that was never intended to sing, an odd accompanying wind or brass instrument that strangely matches it, and nonsensical lyrics reminiscent of Syd Barrett but with more sex. Just when you're getting used to this little piece of quirk, Part 2 begins, and a lo-fi electric guitar begins arpeggiating uncertainly. The voice is back, and this time it's nigh-excruciating as singer Jeff Mangum belts out "IIILooooooovveYYOOOOOOOOOUUUUJEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESUSCHRIIIIIIISSSSTT" in a register far above his capacity. At this point, the listener either runs screaming, never to touch the album again, or (and this is the path you follow) s/he "gets the joke" and bursts into fits of laughter; Mangum sure has balls. Aeroplane gets mentally filed into the "Novelty" section.
No sooner do you dismiss this act as a good joke than Neutral Milk Hotel shatters the conception by bursting into the dreadfully catchy and piledriving near-punk of Part 3. As a plethora of sounds and instruments clank and whirr along, the band reveals its ace in the hole, a brass band that brings even more of a mad, carnivalesque tenor to the song. Maybe this band can rock after all, you think, however weirdly. Could they possibly be _serious_?
The final piece to the puzzle comes with the next two songs. The affecting (and affected) "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" is quite possibly the finest piece of music ever recorded involving a musical saw(three-part saw harmonies, no less!), and the surreal lyrics finally coalesce into a theme, as fine a musical take on "carpe diem" as I remember in rock. By the time Two-Headed Boy Part I rolls around, the songwriting's become almost unbearably good, the singing's become almost unbearably strained, and the instruments have just gone nuts. The sense of yearning is palpable, but something odd's going on. Sure, there's the acoustic guitar being played as violently as in any punk song, but is that the brass band shifting into a New Orleans funeral march? Indeed!
The remainder of the album is a kaleidoscope of oddity, pain, love, young sex, Anne Frank, flowers, flames, spines, and death. Rather than being any one of the the things suggested in the previous paragraphs, Neutral Milk Hotel is ALL of them. Mangum is joking lightly and deadly serious, celebratory and mournful, mad and sane, sober and wild. Illustrating the contradiction are the songs that can make me cry even though I couldn't understand the lyrics if my life depended on it. This album encompasses it all, and just when it all seems like it's going to fly apart, the tortured conviction of Mangum's voice and the utter catchiness of the music win out. _Aeroplane..." is a terrific album if you're willing to accept it on its own terms, and I pity anyone who misses out on it; in all the flailing weirdness, it somehow becomes universal.
PS: The voice becomes incredibly endearing after enough listens.