I don’t have a lot of flying traditions. I ask for a Diet Coke. I play one game of Plants vs. Zombies. I look at the in-flight magazine long enough to realize that I already read it on my last flight, which coincidentally was the last time I felt the weight of being away from home, of being vulnerable, of suffering from the muddled emotions that come when pressurized at 10,000 feet over some midwest state.
At this height, the emotion of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea becomes the equivalent of a hotel lobby bar, dark and distant and lonely. Aeroplane is my newest tradition, to the point that I no longer hear the story of Anne Frank; instead, I hear whatever emotion’s trapped in the airplane cabin. I hear a concept album roughly taped together like an ill-fitting puzzle. Songs that barely fit together meet in the middle as if participating in awkward diplomacy, every word telling a sad story that could be anyone’s sad story – mine, the guy in front of me, the flight attendant racing up the aisles.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the best 90s album I never heard until 2012, and I’m embarrassed to confide it took me so long.
No guitar should bring as much comfort as this guitar does; no lo-fi mic should add as much pain as this lo-fi mic does. No dream has pictured the weird normalcy the way this dream has played out, with pulleys and weights and ill-fated romance, somehow both poetic and stilted, insightful and weird.
Yeah, it’s a tired tradition to shine our sad times onto some tortured record. Of course it is. But listening to Aeroplane, we just can’t help ourselves.
And still, beneath all of that wrenched emotion and torture is a simple and beautiful record. Beneath the gritty acoustic guitar and messy rhythm section and that horn – every time, that fucking horn – lies simplicity at an Elliot Smith level.
(And that’s without bringing in the story we all identify as One Of The Saddest, a World War II angle that provides a story arc as tragic as The Antlers’ Hospice, trading howls and cancer for The Holocaust.)
For the past three weeks I’ve had a combination of hooks from each song stuck in my head. Think about that. An art album with hooks. An art album that gets stuck in your head. An art album about the Holocaust – THE HOLOCAUST! – that toes the balance between must-listen and emotional exhaustion, as if the only thing that can make us happier is remembering how hard everyone else has had it at one point in their lives.
There’s brilliance in creating an album that somehow walks the line between normal and slightly off-kilter. Because it’s not really normal. At times, the lyrics verge into @horse_ebooks territory (Ed: rest in peace, young horse), piecing together random metaphors that, through time, reveal themselves as not random at all. With the warbling inconfidence in Jeff Magnum’s voice and the vaugely Hawaiian guitars and the tortured sadness of the lyrics, Neutral Milk Hotel created something back in 1998 that they must have known they’d never do again. The characters. The endorsement of April Ludgate. THE HORNS. It’s a perfect storm of poetic awkwardness and earworm-ability that must make John Darnielle jealous.
In “Oh Comely,” Magnum writes, “Know all your enemies. We know who our enemies are.” Meanwhile, I write this post sitting miles above the ground, in an airplane over the Midwest. I miss my kids, and I’m in need of some sadness to crush my own. My enemies are exhaustion and insecurity, even among friends, and I accept Magnum’s story as comfort, knowing that everything in life is as awkward and tragic as the history we’ve made, and that by acknowledging that we can keep moving toward home safe knowing there’s no reason to grieve.
I don’t know who the King of Carrot Flowers is, but I know he pulls some of my strings.