As the poet asked, “and how shall I begin,” merely for the sake of finding some way into this introduction I will say that I am very excited to see Neutral Milk Hotel at Constitution Hall tomorrow evening — “I’m very excited;” that’s what I say most often when I describe my feelings of anticipation. It is, as you will understand, one of the grossest understatements this fledgling year will see.
In honor of my impending baptism in Mangum, I am dedicating this edition of AM Radio to the triumphantly nostalgic, haunting, and humbling record, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
Mangum’s magnum opus, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” has been my favorite album for almost a decade. Although I was but a 15-year-old, platinum blonde, Catholic high school cheerleader when I first heard it, I was nevertheless profoundly impacted by it’s overwhelming beauty, both lyrically and sonically — but I was in no state of mind to fully comprehend the complexity that lies within this record. As time went on I listened to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” thousands of times — beginning to end, over and over, through every juncture of my life and eventually I realized that the more I listened, the more I heard — and the bigger the world seemed to get.
It takes an incredibly well-crafted series of songs to not simply withstand the test of time but also to continuously stun, both emotionally and psychologically, even the most veteran of listeners. The ineffable, intrinsic greatness within this album explains why it’s managed to rally such a valiant legion of critics and fans despite never being performed live until a decade after its release. Granted, it’s esoteric in nature and therefore isn’t entirely understood or embraced by myriad indie music aficionados, but for those lucky enough to fall under its tragic but beautiful spell — it’s more than just a record, it’s a confidante through the emotional spectrum of life, love, and loss.
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is a concept album about Jeff Mangum’s emotional reaction after reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” While reading, he was deeply overcome with two separate but simultaneous emotions; first, euphoric love, as the voice of Anne Frank spoke to him with a sense of purity and benevolence more genuine than anything he’d previously read or experienced, and next, immense grief after realizing that the voice he so adored, the love of his life, died a brutal death half a century ago. The 11 songs that resulted reveal the story of how their souls secured an eternal bond after Anne’s ghost found and possessed him and ultimately spoke through him in the form of the record.
Mangum copes with this understandably philosophical grief throughout the album by asserting that death is not the end of existence but rather the beginning of another life through reincarnation. This concept is most astutely examined in what I consider to be the most exquisite song on the record – “Two Headed Boy” – which builds upon the metaphor that he and Anne are one being represented as a boy with two heads.
For me, this song – much like every other track on the record – isn’t just something to listen to but something that demands involvement from the listener in order to full comprehend the unique complexity that lies beneath the unpolished vocals and seemingly pleasant melody.
The most intriguing aspect of Mangum’s work is that the experience of each song is entirely dependent upon the listener’s approach; if you are unabashedly willing to bare your heart in its grasp it will reward you in kind and open up. This hauntingly dismal but magnificent album dramatically transcends a simple tale of absurd and impossible romance. It’s an anguished cry for lost innocence — an unceasing search for moments to both cherish and immortalize.
It’s still out of the realm of my wildest comprehension that I’ll see that nostalgically whimsical title track performed live amid a crowd of over 3,000 people in less than 24 hours — but I can say with certainty that like the record itself, it will be nothing less than a holy spectacle.