The Lasting Appeal of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

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Jeff Mangum founded Neutral Milk Hotel (or NMH, to diehard fans) in Georgia in 1989. The band was popular throughout the ’90s and helped define that nebulous genre, “indie rock.” After 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, though, NMH simply…stopped. Once so noted for its distinctive, even dominating, presence, Magnum’s band faded into the background.

One might attribute the change to the new music landscape: to be a figure in indie rock, you needed a personality as big as your music. However, twenty years on, Aeroplane is still getting buzz. It’s found such diverse fans as Arcade Fire and Caribou.

Part of the cult following comes from the fact that some people just don’t like Aeroplane. Diehard fans flock to its sensitive, moving portrayal of moving on from the past. Critics (and even former NMH devotees) decry the lyrics as simply “embarrassing.”

Aeroplane’s lyrics deal with growing up, and all the confusion that comes with it. They describe fighting with parents, getting overwhelmed with emotion, and experiencing, as if for the first time, the reality of how big and scary the outside world really is.

Magnum cited Ann Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl as a major influence on the record. An odd source of inspiration, to be sure. He was particularly drawn to its portrayal of innocence and vulnerability. Aeroplane confronts the idea that hope doesn’t solve everything.

Although Magnum has recently done well on the reunion tour circuit, it’s unknown if NMH will ever release another album. Even if they do, it might be hard to top their own polarizing phenomenon.

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