Neutral Milk Hotel – In An Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998): On Second Thought

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by Tom Johnson

After a long period spent not listening to it, I listened again to Neutral Milk Hotel’s masterpiece, In An Aeroplane Over The Sea. Returning to an album I had thought I’d worn out or got sick of or ignored in favor of many other ultimately less satisfying albums, as is the case here, is often like a revelation — the songs sound fresh and new and perk my ears with melodies and lyrics time has erased.

It’s like buying an incredible new album, especially if the album being returned to is one that hasn’t been listened to enough times for it to burrow its way into your memories, allowing you to enjoy the textures anew. Sometimes it gives perspective to other music you’ve picked up in its wake, such as with the Decemberists, who are so obviously enamored of Neutral Milk Hotel that it should be a shame — except they beautifully fill a gap left since the release of this, Neutral Milk Hotel’s second and seemingly last album in 1998.

The elements are all there — the simple lilting vocals that are a tad nasal, the unusual turns of phrase and equally odd accompanying music, the mysterious affiliations with the sea and general “old-timeyness,” if such a thing exists. That is to say, it’s music that is not very interested in sounding modern but lacks any cues as to which era it might belong.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s “thing” is generally gentle acoustic music, pleasantly broken at times by elements that should seem cacophonous — but don’t. It remains enthralling: There’s something so engagingly alien about the music that it never sinks into the cliché maudlin that music of this ilk so often does.

It’s dark and certainly odd, but it’s never a downer. Instead, it’s so odd that it feels like a joyous if inexplicably formed celebration of life. The only description of it that I feel fits is cryptic, but meaningful to me: It’s the stuff of dusty attic air and the shafts of yellow sunlight that pass through windows to strike it and make it glow.

That somehow lyrics as disturbing as “your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies” can be set to music in such a way as to sound beautiful is magical to me. And that’s what the whole album is — magical, inexplicable, and always a fresh alternative to everything else out there.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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