In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Posted on June 9, 2007


By Darran Anderson

And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see

Death isn’t necessarily the end. There’s always the question of what the custodians of your memory will do with it. And when the 70 years of copyright runs out, your soul, for better or worse, is effectively up for auction. So Picasso is now a hatchback. Mozart’s greatest work is reduced to a series of ringtones. Shakespeare is a character in a Gwyneth Paltrow movie. We can only imagine what Van Gogh would make of his resurrection in the skies above Canberra, while factories emblazon Gustav Klimt’s shimmering erotic visions across millions of placemats, calendars, mugs. Sometimes though, for what little consolation it gives, fate can be kinder than it was in life. One such case is Anne Frank, becoming the central muse for one of the most inexpressibly beautiful albums of all time.

It’s impossible to ever truly know In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s been compared to T.S Eliot‘s The Wasteland, in the sense that it’s a labyrinthine work that can be endlessly analysed but never completely understood. A miasma of fiction and memory, it shifts continually; a Phantasmagoria whirling through a thousand mystifying images, one minute raw and confessional, the next exhilarating and eccentric. Recorded during storms and semi-destitution, it has a unique combination of the intimate and the unreal, that makes it impossible to either simply like or dislike. It inspires hatred or adoration with every atom of your being. And in an age of diet soul and mortgage rock, we need such extremes.

You have to hark back to Kaddish or Ariel to find a poetic work as deep, affecting and oblique as the lyrics of In the Aeroplane. Much has been made of the surrealist nature of Jeff Mangum’s words; admittedly this is the sinister surrealism of De Chirico or Hans Bellmer or the poet David Gascoyne (his incredible ‘And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis’ would fit in seamlessly) rather than the more playful parlour games of their contemporaries. It is surrealism made tangible by a voice that sounds truthful and old and elemental with a band that is a force of nature, a New Orleans funeral march shorting out in the feedback and the rain, a Salvation Army band soundtracking the Rapture. There’s the dysfunctional childhood of ‘King of the Carrot Flowers Part 1’ (“And your mom would sink until she was no longer speaking / and dad would dream of all the different ways to die / each one a little more than he could dare to try”), the courageous call to Christ in ‘Part 2’, the disconcerting depiction of sex in ‘Oh Comely’ (“Your father made foetuses / with flesh licking ladies / while you and your mother / were asleep in the trailer park”) and the melancholy tale of Siamese-twin-sisters lost in an icebound forest, waiting to be warmed in a wolf’s stomach (“Goldaline my dear / we will fold and freeze together”).

In a way the lyrics are no more bizarre than the facts of it’s central theme – Anne Frank. A 15 year old girl keeping a diary, as she hid with her family in a secret room behind a bookcase above a canal in Amsterdam, hiding from state officials and policemen, who were loading people onto cattletrucks all over Europe to send them to places where families were burned into soap and hair and smoke, that the nation of Goethe and Beethoven should take leave of its senses and follow a failed postcard painter and his coterie of chicken farmers, cloven-footed bank clerks, architects, lawyers, soldiers, civil servants, wine importers and journalists into hell.

The conviction and inventiveness with which Mangum drafts the life and afterlife of Anne Frank is one of the most captivating aspects of In the Aeroplane. He grasps the utter waste and poignancy of her death, a microcosm of the millions murdered, in the spectacular ‘Holland 1945’: “The only girl I’ve ever loved / was born with roses in her eyes / but then they buried her alive / one evening 1945.”

One of the most agonising aspects to the fate of the Frank family is how close they came to surviving, were it not for a tip-off from a still-unknown informer they would have outlived the war. As it was they were apprehended and placed on one of the last three trains travelling from Westerbork to the concentration camps before the Dutch camp was liberated by Canadian troops, a tragedy framed by Mangum: “And only weeks before the guns / all came and rained on everyone.”

Just weeks before liberation, Anne and her sister Margot died in the typhus outbreak that spread like wildfire through the squalor of the Bergen-Belsen camp, claiming the lives of 17,000 people. Of the party who had hid in the secret annex, only her father Otto survived the Holocaust. You can only wonder what weight that man carried around.

Anne still exists in Mangum’s eyes, appearing in the title track, “Anna’s ghost all around / hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me / soft and sweet / how the notes all bend and reach above the trees,” before being reincarnated as “a little boy in Spain / playing pianos filled with flames.”

In ‘Oh Comely’ he goes beyond the solace of an afterlife to a truth that no amount of faith or wonder can disguise, “I know they buried her body with others / her sister and mother and 500 families / and will she remember me 50 years later / I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine.”

In the end let us have our dreams and myths for all those terrible times when there’s nothing else to cling to and with the triumphant ‘Ghost’, Anne (“born in a bottle rocket, 1929”) returns from the soil, “I know that she will live for ever / she won’t ever die.”

Running parallel is a curious sub-plot centred around a two-headed boy, pickled and floating in a glass jar in a darkened laboratory or museum but alive and in love with a girl who pays him visits (“I can hear as you tap on your jar / I am listening to hear where you are”). In a sense, it’s both a charming tale and a frightening one – “Two headed boy / put on Sunday shoes / and dance round the room to accordion keys.” Alluded to in several songs, it features in the coda that ends the album, “Two-headed boy, she is all you could need / she will feed you tomatoes and radio wires / and retire to sheets safe and clean / but don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.” And in its finish it’s like the end of some spectacular film; the credits roll, the lights come on and you stagger out overwhelmed to the surprise that it’s still daylight outside.

Whilst centrally the creation of Jeff Mangum, the collective nature of the album should not be dismissed. Once in a while by some form of witchcraft or blind luck, a group of friends and like-minded spirits come together, not in some sophisticated metropolis but in a forgotten backwater, and against all the laws of probability construct some amazing new form of music from the junk of what’s gone before. As Kim Cooper points out in her superb 33 & 1/3 study of the album, it’s the most rousing, democratic thing about modern music that so many of the greatest creations come from these little pockets scattered around the planet. One such place is Ruston, Louisiana, famous for producing quarterbacks and according to Wikipedia for having “many shops downtown that one can visit.” Another is Athens, Georgia, already on the map for producing R.E.M. It was in these locations that a loose gang of childhood friends formed the Elephant 6 collective, a force whose quietly monumental influence on the course of alternative music is only now being truly understood.

From the encouragement, camaraderie and inspiration the group dynamic brought came a host of bands, all buoyed by the same beatific experimentalism and all capable of stone cold masterpieces: Olivia Tremor Control‘s Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage, Elf Power‘s When The Red King Comes, The Apples In Stereo‘s Her Wallpaper Reverie and The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone. A geniune communal atmosphere prevailed (and still does), with artists guesting on each others records without ego or fanfare. No type of music was excluded from sea-sick psych-pop to music concrete, all earthed with revelry, exuberance and a common deadbeat bohemianism. Neutral Milk Hotel were central to the collective, formed from the debris of Synthetic Flying Machine and orginally a pseudonym for Mangum’s solo experiments; namely a series of demo tapes with names like Pygmie Barn in E Minor filled with mantras, found sounds, tape loops and on occasion actual songs.

The excellent, often overlooked, On Avery Island was the first official public release featuring Mangum backed by Elephant 6 compadres, christened after a bird sanctuary and botanical haunt of Mangum’s, and filled with jaunty, distorted, blissed-out and beguiling tales of sex, suicide and arson (beginning with Judas’ corpse and ending in a dream).

Neutral Milk Hotel truly took on a life of its own with the addition of Scott Spillane on horns, Jeremy Barnes on drums and Julian Koster on bass, banjo and anything else on hand. Living out of haunted closets and boiler rooms, the band came together bolstered by communal living, esoteric thrift store records, jam sessions in which instruments would be swapped, jettisoned and invented and visits to the remarkable penny arcade the Musee Mechanique, where they chanced upon an uncanny child-doppelganger of Anne Frank and picked up the sideshow soundtrack element that runs through so many of the songs. All of these factors coalesce from the second you pull out that curio sleeve, put the stylus on the record, right down to the run-out groove.

With little publicity, no hype or sales puff or rotation videos on MTV, the album seeped out and has grown in esteem ever since, circulating in its thousands around the globe due to nothing more than the quality of it. Since then, the band members have gone onto a wealth of projects all interesting at the least, some mind-blowing. Jeremy Barnes heads up the brilliant Balkan folk-tinged A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Scott Spillane pilots The Gerbils while the tireless Julian Koster fronts The Music Tapes and countless other genius/harebrained schemes.

Then there’s Jeff Mangum. The intensity and mystery of the album has induced a near-religious worship by fans, acolytes whose prophet has vanished. As a generation, we’re so enamoured with fame and celebrity and access to all knowledge that we can barely comprehend that someone would want to turn their back on it all. Those who do, for whatever reason, (Rimbaud, Syd Barrett, Pynchon, Salinger) inevitably fascinate. Maybe they know something we don’t about the Faustian bargain of fame and its price. Maybe they had the presence of mind to abandon ship while they could. Jeff Mangum, despite our romantic wishes, is probably not a haunted recluse, doubtless he remains an inspired complex human being, just one seeking a future on his own terms.

In a way, his apparent disappearance is a logical step, he’s never sought the limelight beyond the underground and essentially he’s just returned to what he’s always done; collaborating with friends, making music and art for the love of creating. In that way In the Aeroplane, rather than his current absence, was a temporary deviation off the path he’s always been pursuing.

In recent times, he’s resurfaced in unexpected places; releasing an album of Bulgarian folk music recorded at the Koprivshtitsa Festival and appearing on New Jersey radio playing leftfield music and sound collages. He’s collaborated on the enigmatic Major Organ and the Adding Machine project, The Apples in Stereo album New Magnetic Wonder as well as playing live with Circulatory System, Olivia Tremor Control and as World of Wilde Beards Incorporated in a one-off show with pals in New Zealand. In the face of an ever-increasing cult, Elephant 6 released the 1997 solo set Live at Jittery Joe’s featuring Mangum performing many of In the Aeroplane tracks in early embryonic forms. A while back, in a rare interview with Pitchfork, he revealed he’s been assembling tapes of sounds from all over Europe (horses, cathedral bells, monologues) as well as songs about hermaphrodites and small boys filling up with birds. They may never see the light of day. It’s his choice and, after this album, it’s his right to do whatever he wants to do.

Many of those who matter most in alternative music (The Dresden Dolls, Fog, Beirut, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists) cite inspiration from Neutral Milk Hotel. The band’s work, it appears, is done. Music as graceful as ‘In the Aeroplane’, searing as ‘Holland 1945’, spellbinding as ‘Oh Comely’ and as stirring as the crescendo of ‘Ghost’ comes all too rarely but they did it and that’s all that matters.

Theodore Adorno wrote that after the Holocaust, there can be no poetry. He was wrong. There must be, all the more so. And this, in eleven tracks like nothing else in recorded music, is the proof.


Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika and editor of the Laika Poetry Review.

Posted in: Listening