Transience and Transcendence In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Pts. One and Two)

Transience and Transcendence In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Pts. One and Two)Over the next three days, Glorious Noise is excited to be publishing Max Heath’s intense examination of the music and lyrics in Neutral Milk Hotel’s classic album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea.

Max Heath revised this article from a thesis originally written in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts with Departmental Honors in Music at Wesleyan University in April, 2007. Max currently resides in Middletown, CT where he is a graduate student in composition at Wesleyan. He also actively writes, performs, produces, and records with several bands. Visit him on MySpace.

Neutral Milk Hotel by Will Westbrook

1

Introduction

 

With its fan base replenished almost exclusively through word of mouth, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea is a compelling document that seems to bypass cognition, achieving a strikingly direct emotional impact. Most of the discussion of the album has centered on its transcendent capacity, but there has been surprisingly little investigation of exactly how it achieves this effect. This is largely due to the fact that analysis has been almost exclusively limited to brief reviews. While there is a book about the album—Kim Cooper’s eponymous work of 2005—it is concerned largely with a factual documentation of the circumstances surrounding the album’s conception, recording, and release.

Because of the limitations of traditional alternative rock journalism, while discourse on Aeroplane‘s basic themes and general aesthetic has been fairly extensive, in-depth examination of its actual content has been avoided. Typically, reviewers have justified this evasion by passing off the album’s lyrics as inscrutably enigmatic, and its music as too simplistic to warrant a closer look. These refrains, however, simply do not hold up with analysis. A comparison of the lyrics with the diary of Anne Frank—a major influence on the album according to principal songwriter Jeff Mangum—reveals a complex relationship between the two texts, illuminating what initially seems hopelessly opaque. In the same way, though the music is indeed harmonically simplistic in many ways, there are distinct elements of songwriting, performance, arrangement, and production that coalesce to manifest the weight of the album’s thematic content in a viscerally affecting sound. But before examining the songs in greater detail, it is useful to understand how Neutral Milk Hotel fits in with—and deviates from—its influences and contemporaries.

To this day, Aeroplane seems to evade context. It is an album full of anachronism and dislocation, from its fantastical lyrics to its unusual instrumentation, culling together disparate elements from traditional folk, circus, marching band, and rock musics. But while the music evokes an experiential disconnection from time and place, it can be understood as an extension of a diverse set of influences and, to some extent, a reflection of the developing “lo-fi” aesthetic of the catchall genre of “indie rock” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The band’s influences are clustered in both very traditional and very experimental idioms, with apparently little in between. Its traditional influences are based in folk music, chiefly its non-western forms. Jeff Mangum was particularly fascinated by Bulgarian folk music, and his only new post-Aeroplane release was a 2001 compilation of field recordings of this music, entitled Orange Twin Field Works: Volume I. Jeremy Barnes, Neutral Milk Hotel’s drummer, emphasizes that an early appreciation of Eastern European folk led the band to embrace all kinds of traditional folk music (Cooper, 2005). This ostensibly accounts for the simple harmonic structure of most of the band’s songs. In addition, Mangum professes a love of circus music, and its whimsical spirit is prevalent in the band’s sound, especially in its often boisterous horn arrangements (McGonigal, 1998).

Experimental and avant-garde music has always played a role in Mangum’s composition. He cultivated an early interest in abstract sound collages and tape loops in part due to his admiration for the work of John Cage and Steve Reich (Cooper, 2005). His enduring appreciation of the music of Pierre Henry, Alain Savouret, and Harry Partch reflects the impact of musique concrète, electroacoustic music, and microtonality in Mangum’s musical development (Cost, 1998). Experimental jazz greatly informed the ensemble’s synergistic dynamic. The band’s primary jazz reference points—John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Charlie Haden and others—are artists from the 1960s and 1970s whose work helped advance jazz to new extremes in structure, technique, and composition (Cooper, 2005). This influence is manifested in the ensemble’s spontaneous, chaotic energy, as well as a propensity for live improvisation.

Psychedelic rock from artists such as the Zombies and Syd Barrett have also contributed to the band’s frequently hazy aesthetic (Griffis, 2003). Producer Robert Schneider’s home studio, where Aeroplane was recorded, was named in honor of the Beach Boys’ landmark Pet Sounds. As a volunteer DJ for Louisiana Tech University’s radio station in the early 1990s, Mangum was also exposed to the burgeoning lo-fi scene, courtesy of artists like Guided By Voices and Sebadoh (DeRogatis, 2003). Mangum and his friends shared with these artists a fondness for the grainy sound of four-track recording. Though partly driven by necessity, these artists also embraced the four-track for its ability to produce a warmer, more idiosyncratic sound in contrast to the sterile polish of professional studio recordings. Mangum explains: “There’s a certain way we’ve gotten used to things sounding, after recording on four-track for years. There are certain sounds we love to hear. All the heavy distortion stuff is intentional” (McGonigal, 1998, p. 56).

Mangum honed his four-track recording with the Elephant 6 collective, an intimate community of friends and collaborators that may represent the most pervasive influence on Neutral Milk Hotel’s sound. The collective sprang up out of the musical friendship between Mangum, Robert Schneider, Will Cullen Hart, and Bill Doss, and gradually grew to envelope a significant group of musicians united by an affinity for lo-fi psychedelic aesthetics and an enthusiasm for sharing ideas with one another. This cooperative artistic spirit was expressed largely through tape-trading; members routinely produced a series of compositions and mini-albums on cassette and circulated them throughout the collective. Eventually Elephant 6 evolved into a sort of record label in spirit[1], its logo often emblazoned upon each project produced by affiliated bands. Many bands aside from Neutral Milk Hotel are associated with the collective, including Olivia Tremor Control (Hart and Doss’s band), the Apples in Stereo (Schneider’s band), Elf Power, and Of Montreal. The bands of Elephant 6 often share members, but each explores a distinct sonic thrust. Mangum describes it as “psychologically being together and then separately musically creating these little worlds” (XFM Radio, 1998). Looking back on his tape-trading days with the collective, Julian Koster—who would later join Neutral Milk Hotel—remarks:

I think what Elephant 6 meant for us is very simple: there’s something pure and infinite in you, that wants to come out of you, and can come out of no other person on the planet. That’s what you’ve got to share, and that’s as real and important as the fact that you’re alive. We were able, at a really young age, to somehow protect each other so we could feel that. (Cooper, 2005, p. 104)

Through sharing living spaces and trading ideas, members forged deep emotional bonds that informed their musical development, collectively and individually.

Neutral Milk Hotel emerged from this atmosphere as a pseudonym for Mangum’s songwriting. After a slew of extremely lo-fi cassette-only releases in the early 1990s, Merge Records released Neutral Milk Hotel’s official full-length debut, On Avery Island, in 1996. This marked the first significant collaboration between Mangum and producer Robert Schneider. Mangum sang and played most of the instruments, while Schneider filled out arrangements and handled the production. Here Schneider deferred to Mangum’s production requests almost absolutely, resulting in a fairly raw sonic palette. Though a fine album, it sounds somewhat flat alongside the much richer followup, which benefited greatly from Schneider’s warm, vintage production techniques.

For the subsequent tour, Mangum assembled a group of dedicated and like-minded musicians active within Elephant 6—drummer Jeremy Barnes, horn player Scott Spillane, and multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster—for what would eventually become the band’s official lineup. Focusing their collective outside influences through the lens of the Elephant 6 community spirit, the band spent the tour forming its signature chaotic sound. By the time the ensuing relentless wave of recording dates and concerts had subsided, over two years had passed and Neutral Milk Hotel had virtually collapsed after conceiving its crucial statement: an album called In the Aeroplane over the Sea.

Neutral Milk Hotel - photo by Will Westbrook

2

Birth

 

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea can be divided into three main sections according to the major shifts in its thematic terrain. The first section, consisting of the first three tracks, broadly contextualizes the speaker and introduces many of the album’s key themes.

Aeroplane begins with a wildly diverse three-part suite. “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1″ opens the album, while parts two and three share the second track, but all three songs serve a unified thematic vision. In this dramatic opening trio a narrow set of harmonic and thematic material is filtered through three dramatically different interpretations. All three share a 4/4 time signature, the key of F major, and consist of various rearrangements of the same three simple chords: F major, Bb major, and C major. But despite these similarities, each is rendered markedly distinct by changes in tempo, arrangement, and sonic texture.

“King of Carrot Flowers Part 1″ begins with an unaccompanied, percussively strummed acoustic guitar riff based around a I-V-IV progression. The upbeat guitar part is thick and crisp, an effect achieved by layering two nearly identical performances over one another through overdubbing. The bare triads are played on the lowest strings of the guitar, establishing a narrow tonality. Mangum’s voice enters with cryptic second-person reminiscence:

When you were young
You were the king of carrot flowers
And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees
In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet

His voice is double-tracked as well, and the thickness of the doubled guitar and vocals creates a rich and vaguely surreal sound.

The use of vocal overdubbing in the context of this album is conceptually significant. Though both Mangum and producer Rob Schneider had ample prior experience thickening the sound of a vocal performance through this technique, Mangum began to restrict his use of vocal doubling during the recording of the first Neutral Milk Hotel album, On Avery Island. For that album he chose to forego vocal double-tracking entirely in favor of a more natural sound (Cooper, 2005). For Aeroplane, Mangum makes sparing but deliberate use of the technique such that it is only employed when absolutely necessary—presumably mainly to achieve a connotation of otherness. This makes sense given the album’s overall psychological trajectory: the speaker undergoes a series of shifts in identity, emotion, and conscious state, and Mangum’s voice is the guiding communicative force for the speaker’s psyche. From this perspective, vocal doubling in Aeroplane can be interpreted as an alteration of the speaker’s psychological state in some way.

In “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1,” that alteration takes the form of nostalgia. Here, the speaker’s remembrances of his childhood are doubly corrupted. First, his memories are selective, romanticizing his fond recollections and relegating painful experiences to the background. His fond memories are recounted in lyrical, emotional symbolism, while domestic disputes are chronicled more directly as intrusions upon his otherwise peaceful period of discovery. The doubling of the guitar and vocal parts establishes a connotation of warmth that resembles the rosy tint of this nostalgia.

Secondly, all of his memories are recalled exclusively through his experiences with an unnamed loved one. The domination of the second-person tone, and his extreme intimacy with the lover through whom he channels his memories establishes a strange duality in the speaker’s identity, reflected by the double-tracking of the vocals. His identity is often merged with that of this lover; memories of his lover’s life, particularly those involving the lover’s parents, are recounted so vividly that they take on an air of first-person memoirs[2]. Indeed, in “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1″ the identity of the speaker and that of his lover are fused together by a union that is at once sexual, romantic, and spiritual:

And this is the room
One afternoon I knew I could love you
And from above you how I sank into your soul
Into that secret place where no one dares to go

The song is a humble exaltation of innocent youth, and the warm, simple instrumentation and arrangement supports the tone of fond recollection. Just after the second verse, as the speaker imagines how “we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for,” an air organ enters to support the guitar line, spelling out the chords in a fairly straightforward, gentle manner. The density of the song reaches its peak at the end with the speaker’s final recollection: “And Dad would dream of all the different ways to die/ Each one a little more than he would dare to try.” Instead of dwelling on the father’s despair, Mangum emphasizes his reluctance to die in the final line, singing this phrase an octave higher than the rest of the melody. This is the first acknowledgment of the recurring theme of the conflict between the joy that life offers and the allure of death. The father’s unwillingness to take his own life constitutes an odd triumph that is nonetheless celebrated as a chorus of multi-tracked voices joins in, mirroring the repeating V-IV-I cadence in three-part harmony. An ornamental synthesizer line appears low in the mix to add a childlike counter-melody to the voices. The song concludes with an air-organ drone on F that is cross-faded into the drone that starts part two of the suite.

In an album full of obfuscated meanings, part two of the “King of Carrot Flowers” suite holds the unique distinction of being the only song that Mangum attempts to explain in the lyrics insert included with the vinyl LP version of the album. Omitting the lyrics, Mangum instead issues this run-on clarification of his intentions:

and since this seems to confuse people i’d like to simply say that i mean what i sing although the theme of endless endless on this album is not based on any religion but more in the belief that all things seem to contain a white light within them that i see as eternal

Many elements of the song support this depiction of eternal spiritual power. First, there’s the opening drone consisting of a single electric organ note rich with harmonics. The sound could be hinting at the resonance of a church organ, but it is more evocative of an otherworldly sonic environment. The entrance of the organ is part of a nearly complete shift from acoustic to electric (or electronically altered) instrumentation. After several seconds, a banjo figure appears, its bright, sharp resonance rendered somewhat unnatural with distortion. This figure slowly repeats four times over the drone for about twenty seconds, establishing a meditative, trancelike spaciousness. The vocal line enters with a jarringly direct and impassioned spiritual declaration as Mangum proclaims “I love you, Jesus Christ,” in a full-throated, unadorned style reminiscent of the American shape-note singing tradition. The vocal melody starts on F above middle C, nearly the top of Mangum’s vocal range, and tumbles down to F an octave below on the word “Christ,” merging with the drone. The note is held for ten long beats, and Mangum enunciates the name gutturally, separating the ‘i’ vowel sound into a long ‘ah,’ followed by ‘e’ and then a barely pronounced ‘ist,’ almost like a throat-singer eliciting a spectrum of overtones. The sound also invites comparisons to the Dharmic sacred syllable, ‘Om,’ held in an extended meditation. Then he inverts the phrase, insisting, “Jesus Christ, I love you, yes I do,” suspending a C major chord over the F drone on the word “do”. The everlasting drone, the cycling guitar figure, the repeating lyrics, and the singing style all cooperate to portray Mangum’s “endless endless” spiritual vision.

The lyrics repeat and the intensity swells as a bass guitar enters forcefully in unison with the drone. The bass is pushed to the front of the mix and heavily distorted, dominating the sonic space. This, too, contributes to the song’s spiritual theme. Distortion gives the effect of equipment being pushed beyond its capacity, being overwhelmed by the high level of signal input. As the note is played it is continuously fed back upon itself and can result in almost unending tones. The combination of these two factors typically results in a connotation of extreme power (Walser, 1993). In this case, the goal seems to be the evocation of a sublime spiritual force. At the same time, a highly dissonant and distorted sound enters low in the mix: a bowed banjo playing vaguely contrapuntally to the vocal line. This line deliberately deviates from the Western twelve-tone harmonic system, weakening the previously solid F major tonality. Producer Rob Schneider remarks, “[I]t has a raw, almost Eastern quality of being out of tune” (Cooper, 2005, p. 70). The effect is of a slowly forming rift between Earthly reality and spiritual transcendence. The intensity continues to build, the speed picks up, and Mangum’s vocal delivery becomes rapid to the point of incoherence. The speaker is evidently achieving a transcendental state as his repeated spiritual affirmations finally give way to what seem to be hallucinatory visions (“the dogs dissolve and drain away”) and an anticipation of some sort of revelation (“The world it goes and all awaits/The day we are awaiting”), ending the vocal melody on the same F above middle C that it began on. As the vocal melody ends, the drone is broken and an exultant trumpet fanfare enters over a slightly modified chord progression, inserting a Bb major chord: I-IV-I-V. This sequence splits the difference between the progression of the second part and that of the suite’s third part. The speed and volume build ever more until thrashing drums and even louder distorted bass signify the explosive entrance of part three.

Part three, originally a self-contained song[3], provides a wild release for the speaker’s spiritual meditations. The speaker spouts a rapid succession of disconnected images in a syncopated melody as the band plays at a frenzied pace. Though it is prominent in the mix almost everywhere else on the album, here Mangum’s voice struggles to stay afloat, awash in a sea of fuzz—nearly every track except for the vocal is heavily distorted, especially the bass and drums, which fuse together into a churning propulsive force and dominate the sonic space. The acoustic guitar is all but lost; only the pitchless percussive attacks on the strings can be discerned at all in the melee. The song has the approximate sound and energy of punk without the oppositional connotations. In fact, it is in a sense punk inverted: the tumultuous sound is of an outside force acting upon the reluctantly compliant speaker, whereas in punk the force generally originates within a defiant speaker and is directed outward.

Mangum says the song is “about my old band the Synthetic Flying Machine[4] and about my mother and about living in Seattle and about trying not to crumble when I was living there… I was very frightened at that point in my life” (XFM Radio, 1998). The frantic speed and muddled lyrics certainly convey a good sense of this disorientation, but the song takes on a broader existential significance in the context of the album.

The lyrics portray a life cycle in blinding speed, starting with a peculiar vision of birth:

Up and over
We go through the wave and undertow
I will float until I learn how to swim
Inside my mother in a garbage bin
Until I find myself again

After exiting this crude womb, the speaker quickly learns to speak and walk:

Up and over
We go mouths open wide and spillin’ stuff
I will spit until I learn how to speak
Up through the doorway as the sideboards creak

The outside force here is some power—biological, social, or otherwise—that compels the speaker to change, develop, and behave in certain ways. He has no autonomy, merely going along with the inexorable flow of the world around him. In the last verse, when he finally tries to exert some level of agency through verbal communication, he realizes he is unable to translate his feelings into words that can be understood by anyone else: “I will shout until they know what I mean/ I mean the marriage of a dead dog sing/ And a synthetic flying machine.” The suite ends on a sustained F played on the distorted bass, briefly threatening to return to the drone of part two until it is abruptly cut off by an anticlimactic low F played casually on a piano—the sound of the speaker sheepishly snapping out of his hyperactive hallucinatory state, or just an afterthought affixed as punctuation.

Taken as a whole, the “King of Carrot Flowers” suite can be seen as a representation of several possible perceptions of reality. The nostalgic part one interprets reality primarily through sensation and emotion. The speaker’s memories are subjective, corrupted by the tenderness that he inextricably associates with his childhood. Part two views reality through a purely spiritual perspective; the speaker receives meaning from the world exclusively through his faith in an eternal spiritual power. The third part is something of a postmodern portrayal of the inherent confusion of maturation. The speaker sees himself as an inconsequential part of a greater whole, rather than as an independent individual. No intrinsic meaning is attached to his experience as he goes through life learning to function in society for no particular reason other than to keep up with a relentless unnamed force. In essence, the purpose of the “King of Carrot Flowers” suite is to contextualize the speaker and to provide a setting for the bulk of the album’s themes, many of which are introduced in the album’s eponymous song that directly follows.

“In the Aeroplane over the Sea” introduces and explores many of the key themes of the album: finding beauty in spite of suffering, the destructive and elusive nature of time, and the ephemerality of life’s pleasures. The song also includes the first allusion to Anne Frank, whose story will become a compelling conduit for these themes.

Like “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1,” “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” opens with unaccompanied, double-tracked acoustic guitar. The sound, however, is markedly different. First, the chords are full and serene in contrast to the percussive, bare triads of the former. While the double-tracking on the first song served to enhance its percussiveness, on “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” the recording technique dulls the attacks and results in a spacious, airy performance. The song is in a carefree 6/8 and in the key of G major, with another simple chord progression: G major, E minor, C major, D major. After the ubiquitous major chords in the I-IV-V progressions of the “King of Carrot Flowers” suite, the addition of the vi chord marks a distinct shift. With four verses, an interlude, and a bridge, the song takes the form of A A B1 A B2 A.

In the first verse, the speaker celebrates his joy in having discovered a revitalizing new love:

What a beautiful face
I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun
What a beautiful dream
That could flash on the screen
In a blink of an eye and be gone from me
Soft and sweet
Let me hold it close and keep it here with me

He knows that love and beauty are fleeting and realizes that his joy is peaking in that very moment, destined to fade soon. So he chooses to savor it for as long as he can, refusing to allow his knowledge of its imminent passing to disturb his abounding contentment.

Drums, bass, and the eerie warble of a multi-tracked bowed saw enter at the start of the second verse. Here the speaker extends his musings on the transience of joy, likening it to mortality:

And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see

Anne Frank envisions death in a similarly innocent fashion in her diary. After her pen accidentally falls into the stove, she remarks lightheartedly, “I’m left with one consolation, small though it may be: my fountain pen was cremated, just as I would like to be someday!” (Frank, 1997, p.145). Here, the multi-tracked bowed saw traces out a dissonant accompaniment mostly consisting of moving thirds (see fig. 2.1). It moves in swooping, wobbly glissandos in an ever-rising line, lending the song a degree of wounded beauty akin to the speaker’s misgivings about mortality and the transience of his joy. The saw line here illustrates the journey of “the aeroplane over the sea,”—the titular symbol of the album—representing splendor and grief rolled into one.

Approximate singing saw melody from 'In the Aeroplane over the Sea.'
Fig 2.1: Approximate singing saw melody from “In the Aeroplane over the Sea.”

It is majestic in its flight, but its purpose is grim: depositing cremated remains into the ocean. The saw fades away for the interlude over the bridge’s chord progression, which simply rearranges the four chords of the verse to Em-C-G-D[5]. With E minor as the harmonic center, a trumpet plays a mournful melody, foreshadowing the melancholy of the upcoming bridge.

By the third verse, time has passed. The sun has set and evening arrives. Although the speaker still savors his happiness, the ghost of Anne Frank begins to haunt him:

What a curious life
We have found here tonight
There is music that sounds from the street
There are lights in the clouds
Anna’s ghost all around
Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me
Soft and sweet
How the notes all bend and reach above the trees

The voice of Anne Frank represents a past example of beauty that faded all too quickly. Like the setting sun, it reminds the speaker of the imminence of sorrow in the wake of his happiness. The saw line persists, taking on new significance as the manifestation of the voice of Anne’s ghost. As the haunting melody climbs ever higher and veers on and off key, the notes of the saw truly do “bend and reach above.” Further, the rising, shrill pitch of the saw resembles the sound of air raid sirens, omnipresent during Anne’s time in hiding. An entry in her diary parallels the juxtaposition of this dissonance with the beauty of nature and love:

The weather was gorgeous, and even though the air-raid sirens soon began to wail, we stayed where we were. Peter put his arm around my shoulder, I put mine around his, and we sat quietly like this until four o’clock, when Margot came to get us for coffee. (Frank, 1997, p.257)

The speaker finally allows melancholy to overtake him in the bridge. While earlier the song was resolutely in the present tense, here the tense changes as the speaker turns to the past, triggered by the voice of Anne’s apparition:

Now how I remember you
How I would push my fingers through
Your mouth to make those muscles move
That made your voice so smooth and sweet

The emotional impact of Anne Frank’s death upon the speaker surfaces as he imagines himself trying to physically revive her dead voice, to make her sing— communicate—again, as some sort of puppet. This could be a reference to Mangum’s own reading of Anne Frank’s diary. Perhaps he was so shaken to learn of her tragic death that he descended into a state of denial, refusing to accept that she was truly dead, just as the speaker deludes himself into believing he could produce the sound of a human voice simply by moving the right muscles in her body. Perhaps he views his immersion in her diary as a way of allowing her to continue to communicate even as the words on the pages are hopelessly static. In any case, it is clear that the speaker’s attempts to reproduce this lost voice are futile. As he sings these words, the saw line becomes an amorphous, atonal quaver, mimicking the sound of a moaning voice. At the end of the bridge, it collapses into a mess of squeaks and scrapes, the sound of the voice breaking into a pitchless whimper.

A more specific reference to Anne occurs in the second half of the bridge:

And now we keep where we don’t know
All secrets sleep in winter clothes
With one you loved so long ago
Now he don’t even know his name

Anne professed love for two boys—Peter Schiff, an elementary school infatuation, and, to a lesser extent, Peter van Daan, with whom she spent her time in hiding—but they both tragically shared Anne’s fate, perishing in concentration camps in 1945 (Frank, 1997). This example extends even further the theme of inevitable transience: joy fades to sorrow, life fades to death, and, perhaps worst of all, memory fades to oblivion.

In the final verse, the speaker reclaims his joy by returning to his present contentment, and then shifting his thoughts toward the distant future:

What a beautiful face
I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun
And when we meet on a cloud
I’ll be laughing out loud
I’ll be laughing with everyone I see.

He still exalts in his momentary pleasure, but, realizing that it will not last long, he finds solace in anticipating lasting happiness after life, once his joy on Earth has gone. Nonetheless, the conflicted beauty of the saw line remains; after allowing the fear of death and despair to corrupt his thoughts, he is unable to banish it from his mind.


[1] It even functioned as a record label in practice for a time, though it only released a handful of albums between 1993 and 1999 (Cooper, 2005).

[2] The fighting parents in the song are widely believed to be based on Mangum’s own; his parents routinely quarreled, divorcing when he was fourteen years old (Griffis, 2003).

[3] The song can be traced all the way back to the first-ever Neutral Milk Hotel release, the cassette-only Invent Yourself a Shortcake from 1991. It appeared on that album in an embryonic form under the title “Synthetic Flying Machine” (Bachner, 2004).

[4] Mangum’s ongoing fascination with impossible flying machines is echoed in commissioned drawings of a flying Victrola record player that came to be something of a logo for the band. Variations of this image appeared on promotional posters and tee-shirts, as well as on the labels of the Aeroplane CD and LP (Cooper, 2005). The image may serve to evoke a bygone era, or perhaps it signifies Mangum’s personal guiding philosophy that music offers limitless possibilities (McGonigal, 1998).

[5] This chord progression is identical to that of a section from an unreleased song, “Oh Sister,” which exerts its influence more prominently later in the album.


Come back tomorrow for the next installment of Max Heath’s thesis… Update: The next two installments are available now: Pt. Three and Pts. Four and Five.

If you don’t already own this album, you owe it to yourself to buy it: Amazon, eMusic. Seriously. You need it.

11 thoughts on “Transience and Transcendence In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Pts. One and Two)”

  1. Wow. This really nails it. I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

    This album really transcends all pop (excuse the term) music.

  2. Hi Max. You get lots of points for your good-natured reply. I take the tone of the reply to be honest, not put on, and, good-naturedly, I’ll be clearer: simplify if you want to keep your readers. Why manifest when you can show? Why use idioms when you can use style? Keep writing and keep pruning.

  3. I appreciate the advice, but do keep in mind this was originally an undergraduate thesis so there’s plenty of academic residue, and I am fully aware of the complications inherent in its new context in an online rock ‘zine. I do still think that it functions perfectly fine as a way to present these ideas though, and Jake was happy to publish it as is so I didn’t really feel the need to overhaul the tone/style. I didn’t write this for the purpose of getting it published so my main goal was figuring out what this all is, rather than keeping readers interested. It’s really best for readers who are already interested.

    You may find the middle and end a bit warmer? I completely understand if it’s bit much to get past but if you change your mind I hope you can find something worthwhile. Thanks for the feedback, anyway.

  4. Thank you very much for publishing this work, Max. I enjoyed reading it very much. I am impressed with your work, and you managed to explain in words what was only emotions to me before.

  5. Max, I’d really like to read your entire work. Do you have it online? I’m working on a doctorate thesis on lo-fi music, and I think your work could be very helpful.

    Congratulations!

  6. Marcelo: This, along with the next two installments that this links to, constitutes all of my work on Aeroplane. If you would care to contact me directly you can find my contact info through the GloNo staff (specifically Jake). Thanks for reading!

  7. Well, alright! I was just wondering if your work is published on an online university library, so I could put it as a “regular” reference. Anyway, I do not think this is going to be a problem. I’ll finish my reading on the next days and maybe I’ll contact you!

    1. It is in the Wesleyan University library, but only in hard copy, unfortunately. I bet you could get it on ILL though. Good luck and I’ll be interested to check out what you come up with.

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