Sometimes you just have to write a cryptic song cycle about a young girl evading Nazis during WWII.
Jeff Mangum spent the late 80’s and early 90’s recording his unique and oblique songs onto a portable four-track and occasionally self-releasing them in limited quantities on cassette tapes. For some time he traveled across America, sleeping on couches and writing music, an itinerant minstrel gathering material. His 1996 debut album under the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker was basically a solo album with assistance from friends, but the following year he assembled a band to help translate his lo-fi demos into lo-fi studio recordings.
The ideas that needed translating stemmed mostly from Mangum reading The Diary Of Anne Frank, a teenage girl’s daily record of hiding from Nazis for two years during the occupation of Holland. By his own account, Mangum cried for three days after finishing the book and began having recurring dreams about going back in time to save her.
What does a writer do when filled with so much emotion? A writer puts pen to paper and fingers to guitar and — in Mangum’s case — creates songs with titles such as “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost.” Those two titles are understandable if you know what stirred their author to compose them. Less understandable is “The King Of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One,” which would soon take its place as the opening track on Neutral Milk Hotel’s sophomore album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.
It’s unclear how this song applies to Anne Frank or WWII, or if it’s even meant to be part of the cycle, as the surreal lyrics are somewhat difficult to interpret. (Do they even have rattlesnakes in the Netherlands? I don’t know, but apparently they’re falling all around your feet.) Granted, none of the other tracks on the album are all that explicit, either, but lyrics often mean one thing to the artist and another to the audience, and whether the twain shall meet or not matters little.
Once it’s out there, art connects however it wants to — however we let it.
Upon its release in 1998, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea connected with more people than expected, becoming one of the best-selling records of the year. Over the ensuing decades its reputation has only grown and the album is now considered an indie rock classic, impenetrable or not.
So climb into the aeroplane, and gaze out over the sea .. with Neutral Milk Hotel