It’s 2004. I’m in the backseat of my mother’s Honda CRV. My brother, three years my senior, has put on a CD he’s just purchased at our local Borders, and the voice from the speakers starts singing about carrot flowers, holy rattlesnakes, and sticking forks into daddy’s shoulder.
“What does this song even mean?” my brother asks. Of whom? Me? I’m a shitty little thirteen-year-old neck-deep in my Led Zeppelin Is The Only Band That Matters phase. My mother? She couldn’t care less; I think she may have described the sound of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has “dirge like” and “bad.” But for whatever reason, to this day, his question sticks with me. What does this song even mean? It wasn’t the answer that interested me as I sat there confused by the lyrics but hypnotized by the punk-like power chords coming out of the distorted acoustic guitar. It was the question itself, and what could lead someone to be that effected, for better or worse, by a rock album.
I’d be lying if I said that when I first heard it Aeroplane instantly became my favorite album of all time. It didn’t. I may have hated it. Again, I was going through the obligatory classic rock phase of a young American boy’s life where any music released after 1979 was, by definition, garbage. So when I listened to those first few tracks on that fateful CRV drive, hearing a nasal voice scream about Jesus and mispronounce the word “airplane”, I didn’t get it. Like, at all.
I had an eye-opening conversation about four years ago with a college buddy. We were out drinking at a bar and he asked me what kind of music I was into recently. That question always puts me on the spot, so I go to my go-tos, “My favorites are probably The Hold Steady, The Mountain Goats, Fountains of Wayne, that kind of stuff.” “Oh!” he responds. “You’re a lyrics guy.” I had never thought of it like that, but it made perfect sense. It actually crystalized my entire understanding of my musical self. Every artist I’ve gotten into I have gotten into initially because of a single lyric. With Led Zeppelin, I heard “And the forests will echo with laughter” and I was hooked. The Hold Steady, “she was a really good kisser but she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian.” The Mountain Goats, “The first time I made coffee for just myself I made too much of it, but I drank it all just ‘cuz you hate it when I let things go to waste.”
Neutral Milk Hotel, “How strange it is to be anything at all.”
I will never forget that moment. The drive my mother, my brother, and I were taking that night in 2004 took about ten minutes. At the end of those ten minutes, as we were pulling onto our street, the title track began to come to a close. I’m still confused by the sound, but then I hear the lyric:
What a beautiful face
I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun
And when we meet on a cloud
I'll be laughing out loud
I'll be laughing with everyone I see
Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all
Now, every time I hear that lyric, I am back in that CRV. I am contemplating my own mortality for the first time maybe ever. I am grateful to be alive. To be anything at all. And I am grateful for this weird music.
Aeroplane can best be described as divisive. Polarizing. Challenging. All of these words that really just amount to code for “weird.” And it is weird. You cannot tell me that the sound of the out-of-tune trumpet on “The Fool” is a pleasant one. You cannot tell me that hearing Jeff Magnum scream “I love you Jesus Christ” isn’t off-putting at first. You cannot tell me that humming along to the lyric “semen stains the mountaintops” doesn’t make you feel strange at first. But if you Google Aeroplane and you look at the endless debate it has sparked over the last twenty years, you’re going to find those words I listed above. To me, calling something “polarizing” is just lazy critiquing. It’s one of those words like “problematic” that necessitates a qualifying statement. “I think Aeroplane is polarizing.” Why do you think that? “Because it sounds like a Baltic circus from the turn of the century.” Well, then it’s not polarizing. It sounds like circus music. Just say that. If you don’t like circus music, that’s your prerogative. Me? I don’t like circus music. But I love In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
I love every fucking second of it. And just like the title track brings me back to that CRV, every track I can tie to something specific in my life.
King of Carrot Flowers brings me back to my basement, maybe three or four years after I first heard the album, plucking out power chords on my black ovation acoustic guitar, trying in vain to hit the high note on “than he could dare to try.”
Two Headed Boy was one of my first driving songs when I got my license, the kind of song I’d never sing for an audience but by God would belt passionately from the same CRV my mother handed down to me.
The Fool puts me right back in band class, trying to teach myself the trombone by playing along with the only song on the album that can accurately be described as “dirge like”
Holland, 1945 will always be in my top five favorite songs of all time. It’s a song that carries with it a lot of firsts for me. It was the first song I performed live in front of a crowd when I was making music as The Butcher Boy. It was the first song about love that I could relate to, because it’s true, “the Earth looks better from a star that’s right above from where you are.”
Communist Daughter took me a while to appreciate. Most of my memories with Aeroplane bring me back to junior high and high school, but Communist Daughter I only really started to love recently. I remember listening to it the day after Trump’s election. Once again, it was a lyric that brought me in: “sweetness sings from every corner.”
Oh Comely saved my life.
Ghost is the only song with acoustic guitars you’ll find on my workout playlist. I still fantasize about being a rock star, and when I do I’m playing Ghost. In a lot of ways it’s the best song on the album. It’s certainly the best storytelling on an album that is sometimes referred to as a “concept album”, each rhyme necessitating the next, the story coming out the only way it possible could. “One day in New York City baby, a girl fell from the sky…”
The untitled track is the most important track on the album. It takes what would have been a loosely connected series of songs and elevates it to a piece of music that demands to be listened to as a whole. As a companion piece to The Fool it brings the album full circle, almost like The Hero’s Journey where we have crossed the threshold and come back having learned something but having paid a price for it.
Two Headed Boy Part 2 brings me as close to God as I’ll ever get. Because God isn’t the Jesus Christ Jeff sings about at the top of the album. God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.
Falling in love with Aeroplane was a lot like learning how to walk. You try a few times and fail. You fall down, you have false starts, you think to yourself “why learn to walk when I can just stay here and crawl.” And then something happens. You find that sense of balance, whether it be in a lyric or whether it was inside you all along. And you start walking. And all of a sudden, you know how to walk. All of a sudden, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea becomes the most important piece of art in your life forever.
It brought me out of my “Fuck Modern Music” sensibility and into the world of the here and now. Neutral Milk Hotel lead me to Elliott Smith lead me to Bright Eyes lead me to Iron and Wine lead me to Joanna Newsom lead me to The Mountain Goats lead me to where I am today, and all roads lead back to King of Carrot Flowers.
Being in love with an album that turns twenty-years-old today is kind of like looking out at the ocean. When the tide’s high, you’ll dip your toes in, and next thing you know you’re swimming in it and Neutral Milk Hotel is the only band you’ll listen to for a while. But the tide always goes out, though it never goes away. And you’ll spend a few months listening to music like Beirut and Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens, music that would never exist without Aeroplane. Aeroplane is always there, sometimes in the distance, sometimes all around you. It has been a constant in my life, a promise that has never been broken, a friend who doesn’t change over time, who is always there for you. You may change, but wherever you go In the Aeroplane Over the Sea will be there for you, a signal that sounds in the dark.
Happy Birthday, Aeroplane.