Transience and Transcendence In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Pt. Three)

Transience and Transcendence In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Pt. Three)The second installment of Glorious Noise’s publication of Max Heath’s intense examination of the music and lyrics in Neutral Milk Hotel’s classic album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea. If you missed the first installment, read Pts. One and Two now.

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 - photo by Will Westbrook




After the speaker has elicited as much joy as possible from the beautiful day portrayed in the album’s title track, the sun sets and the speaker’s state of mind becomes correspondingly crepuscular, his thoughts drifting to darker and more emotionally complex themes in the following “Two-Headed Boy”. While the first third of the album was characterized by nostalgia, contentment, and a hint of mystery and darkness, the second third reprioritizes these themes, delving more deeply into obscurity as the speaker tries to reconcile the beauty he has known with the suffering he encounters. “Two-Headed Boy” marks a pointed sonic shift as well, consisting of a fairly raw recording of a passionate vocal performance accompanied starkly by a lone acoustic guitar. This and the other two songs with this bare arrangement—both “Oh Comely” and “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” consist of only singly-tracked guitar and vocals, except for some sparse doubled vocals and horns in the second half of the former—make up the album’s emotional core, anchoring the thematic exploration in the rest of the songs.

“Two-Headed Boy” perpetuates the key of G major established in “In the Aeroplane over the Sea,” which persists throughout the middle third of the album, excluding the following interlude, “The Fool.” The preservation of harmonic space combined with a complete shift in arrangement and emotion establishes the two songs at different ends of a single continuity. This gives further support to the idea that “Two-Headed Boy” is the night that follows the day of the title track, especially as Mangum sings: “The Sun it has passed / Now it’s blacker than black.” Like the title track, “Two-Headed Boy” consists of a few simple chords—this time G major, B major, C major, and D major. The oscillating key change between G major and B major during the verses is salient since up to this point each song has remained firmly in one key. While it remains consonant, this fluctuation is still enough to hint at the duality that the song’s symbolic protagonist embodies.

The dynamics of the song are consistently loud until the gentle final verse. The forceful guitar attacks are muted throughout. The lower fifths—or ‘power chords’—are emphasized but they are filled out with higher thirds and octave doubles of the roots and fifths on the downbeats of some measures and on chord changes. All strums, except for periodic flourishes at the end of some measures, are steady eighth notes, and the speed and tension of the performance is reflected in the lyrical imagery, both in the tapping sound the two-headed boy makes on his jar, and in his dancing.

Fig 3.1: Vocal melody in verse one of “Two-headed Boy”

The vocal melody follows the emotional content of the lyrics. In the first half of each verse, Mangum’s voice remains in its lower register as he calmly describes the two-headed boy’s actions. The heavily syncopated melody in this part is based on three-note ascending scalar fragments (see fig. 3.1). In the second half, just before the refrain, his voice leaps up an octave as the speaker recognizes the crucial emotional significance of those actions. In the first verse, this heightened passion corresponds to the speaker’s desire to determine the location of the two-headed boy by the sound of his tapping on the jar. In the second verse, the speaker is overcome when he imagines how the boy interprets sensation into emotion and joy in his dancing by “catching signals that sound in the dark.” In the third verse, his emotions boil over as he describes the beauty of a magic radio the boy constructs and the dismayed reaction of the boy’s lover:

And through the music he sweetly displays
Silver speakers that sparkle all day
Made for his lover who’s floating and choking with her hands across her face.

In the chorus, the melody outlines a descending scale from D to G, leaping up to E and F#, then descending again. As the speaker notices the boy’s eyes are no longer moving, the vocals become quiet and the melody forms an embellishment of the G-A-B fragment that begins the verse. At the final verse, the dynamics pull back slightly, the fierceness of the guitar strumming softens, and the tone of Mangum’s voice becomes tender. Where he would normally leap up an octave, his soothing words are transposed down an octave to establish an air of consolation. He sings a wordless lullaby as the tempo slows and the time signature changes to 3/4, a reference to the time signature and sentimental tone of “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” later in the album. The tempo and time signature change also allows a seamless transition into the following slower waltz, “The Fool.”

Lyrically, “Two-Headed Boy” is one of the most opaque songs on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, maybe second only to “Oh Comely”. Its lyrical ambiguity is all the more maddening because, as a whole, it is highly emotionally communicative. This quality is particularly emblematic of what Kevin Griffis (2003) describes as Mangum’s capacity for

dada-esque poetry that manages to convey an emotional texture, as if Mangum was working on a principle similar to Ernest Hemingway’s theory of omission.
     Hemingway would strip his works to the marrow, believing that the reader would intuitively understand what had been omitted and that it would communicate more than the words alone. The difference for Mangum was that he could use his voice as a weapon to cut straight into your chest.

The passion of Mangum’s performance combined with the large scale of the symbolism suggests a highly nuanced meaning that lies intact only in the mind of the author. Indeed, Mangum claims, “There are only a couple of parts that seem to me to be pure dream-sequence type stuff, but ninety-five percent of the album is either experiences that I’ve had or experiences that friends have had, or historical figures—it’s all real stuff” (Carioli, 1998). “Two-Headed Boy” probably contains a significant share of the five percent of fantasy-based content. Nevertheless, when understood in conjunction with the music and the example of Anne Frank—certainly the ‘historical figure’ with the most dominating influence on Aeroplane—the lyrics become more comprehensible.

Mangum says the basic premise is that the boy “makes a magic radio for his girlfriend, but then she breaks it. It’s also about the end of the world, and he’s in a jar, and you can’t really tell if he’s on display or real or not” (ibid). Of course, the two-headed boy is seemingly too dramatic a symbol not to have any outside reference, and there is much evidence to confirm this. In one sense, the two-headed boy thrusts the dualistic undertones surrounding “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1” to the forefront. As Mangum’s description above suggests, there is also duality in how the boy is perceived— whether he is “real or not.” So who is this two-headed boy? Is he simply a character through which Mangum expresses the album’s themes, is he meant to symbolize a real person, or both? The diary of Anne Frank, Mangum’s principal exterior influence for the album, offers significant insight into these questions.

In her diary, Anne grapples with the idea of duality extensively, and it is one of the main recurring themes in her entries. She sees duality in how she perceives the world outside herself, mainly through her love for two boys of the same name. At one point, she realizes, “Peter Schiff and Peter van Daan have melted into one Peter, who’s good and kind and whom I long for desperately” (Frank, 1997, p. 196). But more importantly, Anne repeatedly sees herself as conflicted and dualistic, and this is the subject of the remarkable final entry of her diary:

As I’ve told you many times, I’m split in two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life and, above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things…This side of me is usually lying in wait to ambush the other one, which is much purer, deeper and finer. (Frank, 1997, pp. 330-331)

She goes on to describe a constant battle between her lighter side and her more contemplative side for expression. The two-headed boy is similarly torn between expressing his joy and surrendering to somber contemplation, dancing in one verse, building a magic radio to please his lover in another, and lamenting his lack of fulfillment in the next. It is certainly possible that the two-headed boy represents Anne to some extent. The word “boy” certainly should not rule it out; gender seems to be a mutable characteristic for Mangum, as evidenced by the sexual ambiguity of the characters in “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1,” and his imagined reincarnation of Anne as a young Spanish boy in the song, “Ghost,” later in the album. Further, the two-headed boy is trapped in a jar, and Anne shares a similar plight in her time in hiding during the war. She could look outside at the world around her, but was ever conscious of the walls that bound her. Like the two-headed boy, she expresses her joy and creativity freely in spite of her confines, and even literally practiced dancing regularly at times (Frank, 1997). And as the two-headed boy built a magic radio, she created a beautiful—perhaps magical, in Mangum’s view—object: her diary. Mangum’s choice to have the two-headed boy build a radio may also reflect the importance of this device in Anne’s life; when she was in hiding, the radio was crucial in that it was virtually her only means of knowing about the outside world. The song’s unsettling refrain seems to invoke the suffering she endured due to the war: “And in the dark we will take off our clothes / And they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine.” Whatever the act being described here, it is almost certainly invasive. Perhaps it refers to the fear of discovery and loss of privacy that accompanied Anne’s life in hiding, or even her eventual experience in the concentration camp where she died.

But it is still more compelling that the two-headed boy represents not just Anne the historical figure, but Anne as Mangum psychologically perceives her. In an interview in Puncture magazine, he reveals that Anne’s diary gave him a uniquely personal perception of her: “While I was reading the book, she was completely alive to me…[I was] as deep as you can go in someone’s head, in some ways deeper than you can go with someone you know in the flesh” (McGonigal, 1998, pp. 21-22). So maybe the jar is not just an agent that separates Anne from the outside world, but a symbol for all that separates Anne from Mangum in spite of his intimate knowledge of her life and personality. Accordingly, Kim Cooper (2005) sees the jar as a “metaphor for impermeable time, a transparent barrier between souls” (p. 72). Mangum’s conception of Anne is preserved such that it can come to life within the confines of his imagination but is nonetheless a static entity.

In the final verse, the speaker attempts to comfort the heartbroken two-headed boy:

Two-headed boy
There’s no reason to grieve
The world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves
Left beneath Christmas trees in the snow
And I will take you and leave you alone
Watching spirals of white softly flow
Over your eyelids and all you did
Will wait until the point when you let go

Mangum explains that, “At the end, everything he’s ever wanted is in these packages under a Christmas tree in the snow” (Carioli, 1998). The image of discarded trees left to wither in the snow after the holidays have ended relates to Anne as well, who longed for open celebration instead of the muted festivities that marked holidays and birthdays in the Annex (Frank, 1997). Due to Mangum’s spiritual beliefs regarding the color white (as outlined in his aforementioned explanation for “King of Carrot Flowers Part 2” in the LP’s lyric insert), the line about “spirals of white” warrants a closer look. While it could simply be a description of snow falling over the boy, it may also be a reference to the white light that Mangum believes is contained in all things. The color white is also significant in Anne’s diary; she reproduces a poem her father wrote for her, where he describes her, clad in her white robe in the night, as a “figure in white” (Frank, 1997, p. 119). She admires and agrees with this description, quoting it twice: first as it appears in the complete poem, and then again later in a brief three-line excerpt. The speaker, in a hushed, low whisper, tries to sing the two-headed boy to sleep—or to death—as his spiritual essence surrounds him, and the song eventually becomes a wordless lullaby. This morbid interpretation is supported by another conspicuous addition of extraneous material to the album’s lyrics insert. Right after the final line of “Two-Headed Boy,” he adds a quote from the song, “Oh, Sister,” an unreleased song that appears in a performance recorded between the releases of On Avery Island and Aeroplane (line breaks are added):

Oh sister now that we’re grieving
Our fingers will falter our lungs will be leaking
All over each other and without even speaking
We’ll know that it’s over and smile and go greeting
Whatever comes next

This is certainly the most vital unreleased song from the pre-Aeroplane era because it relates strongly to several songs on the album. “Communist Daughter,” “Ghost,” and, crucially, “Oh Comely” share lyrics and musical elements with “Oh Sister,” and it is included in the lyric insert directly after the final lines of “Two-Headed Boy” ostensibly because the two songs share the verb “grieve,” as well as a general connotation of mourning and melancholy. The themes of death in the songs that directly follow give even more support to the presence of mortality in “Two-Headed Boy.” The next song with lyrics, “Holland, 1945,” begins with a direct description of Anne’s death, while the interlude that connects the two—”The Fool”—has the atmosphere of a funeral march.

The interlude’s ominous drums enter in the last two bars of the closing lullaby of “Two-Headed Boy” to form a seamless transition, transforming the melancholy of the lullaby into heavy despair. One of the album’s two instrumental tracks, “The Fool” was written by horn player Scott Spillane, who also arranged the horns with producer Robert Schneider (Cooper, 2005). It is the only song on the record to leave out Mangum’s voice and guitar playing[6]. It is also the only song that does not credit Mangum with having had a hand in composition[7]. In fact, “The Fool” was not even originally intended for the album; Spillane penned it for a friend—Joey Foreman—to use in the soundtrack to a movie of the same name (ibid). Nonetheless, the song is organically integrated into the album despite its independent origins and distinct instrumentation. In this context it functions as a segue between two markedly different-sounding songs connected by a common theme of melancholy and grief.

These themes are elicited by evoking a funereal aura, a fitting transition between a song hinting at the end of Anne Frank’s life and another exploring the implications of her death. The somberly blaring horns, militant snare, tambourine, and crashing cymbals are all appropriately gloomy. The horns here are a particularly good showcase of Spillane’s signature bombastic, slightly off-key technique. There’s also an accordion, a possible reference to the “accordion keys” Mangum sings of in the previous song. The song’s dark tonality bears an Eastern European folk influence, but its instrumentation and arrangement also evoke the boisterous jubilance of circus music turned inside-out, hinting at the potential sideshow freak connotations of the two-headed boy.

“The Fool” takes the harmonic center on a brief detour away from G major to D natural minor. The simple chord changes mainly alternate between D minor and A minor in the verse, and between Bb major and F major in the bridge. The dark melody is stated clearly in the primary section by two or three horns in unison over a deep bass. Accordion chords provide the only other harmonic structure. The chorus allows the horns to fan out and opens up the harmonic space of the song. Here the horns hold out chords emphasizing suspended ninths, muted over Bb major and expanding dynamically over the F major. In the following recapitulation of the theme, the harmony is thickened by two ragged, seemingly extemporaneous countermelodies, one in the middle register of the trumpet, and another in the highest register of the accordion. The theme leaps up an octave at the end to close the song on a grim fanfare.

The following song, “Holland, 1945,” contrasts dramatically as the speaker inverts his grief in a desperate attempt to find beauty in spite of the suffering around him. The only Aeroplane single, “Holland, 1945″ was released as a 7” picture disc in October of 1998 with “Engine” as a b-side. While the album’s title track may seem a more obvious choice to represent the album, it is easy to see why this song was picked. Where “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” hints at the album’s central theme of the conflict between earthly beauty and the eternal peace of death, “Holland, 1945” confronts it directly, eliciting not just contentment, but celebration from tragedy. Further, with its thrashing drums, distorted bass, churning acoustic guitar, and soaring horns, it’s a much better representation of the archetypal chaotic sound of the ensemble than the uncharacteristically serene title track. Multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster claims that this chaos was one of the central defining elements of the group’s aesthetic:

I think I really recognized how important that chaos was, how much of the magic of what was happening radiated through that chaos. In a weird way, I felt that the record was supposed to be chaotic: there needed to be an explosion if there was going to be a record of the thing. Maybe loving that chaos was part of my job […] Also, the way Jeremy [Barnes] played the drums—the sheer volume—and the band’s absolute desire to capture it, affected the approach of recording tremendously. (Cooper, 2005, pp. 63-64)

After Mangum counts in the song with a casual “…two, one-two-three-four,” the ensemble kicks in at full steam, and the intensity remains at the redline for the duration of the song. Like the similarly chaotic “King of Carrot Flowers Part 3,” the drums are a churning, dominating presence, despite being pushed low in the mix to accommodate the force of the distorted bass and acoustic guitars. Accordingly, the acoustic guitar and Mangum’s vocals are doubled seemingly just to break through the sheer sound mass. As in that song, the vocal melody carries through due to a vacancy in the middle and upper middle frequencies of the sonic space, caused by an emphasis of the low and low middle frequencies of the guitar, bass, and drums, and the high-frequency white noise haze of the crashing cymbals. All instruments and vocals are performed at nearly top volume and intensity throughout.

“Holland, 1945” returns to the G major key that was briefly abandoned during “The Fool.” Though the transition is somewhat abrupt, it is eased by the opening C major chord, which pivots from the vii of D minor in “The Fool,” to the IV of G major. As in the “King of Carrot Flowers” suite, “Holland, 1945” consists solely of I, IV, and V chords arranged in various orders. Like that of “Two-Headed Boy,” the verse melody of “Holland, 1945” is based on a three-note fragment consisting of three consecutive scale degrees which is then shifted downward. In the same way as that song, the initial fragment is repeated twice and then extended further after its demodulation (see fig. 3.2). Here, that fragment starts on the fifth, sixth, and seventh scale degrees, then demodulates to the first, second, and third degrees and repeats there several times with some variations. The whole-tone intervals between each note in the melody are preserved.

Fig 3.2: The vocal melody of verse one from “Holland, 1945.”

The chorus melody also bears similarities to the refrain of “Two-Headed Boy.” Each is loosely based on a repeating descending scale, and in “Holland, 1945” that scale ranges from G above middle C to G an octave lower, skipping the fourth scale degree. Horns echo this descent in moving thirds at each pass. The vocals end at the bridge as the final flourish on the word “eyes” quotes the basic three-note building block of the verse and leaps up an octave.

The lyrics of “Holland, 1945” delve even further into the life of Anne Frank, this time exploring her death in particular. The song is named for the region where she was captured in hiding and the year in which she died. The first verse contains a few specific details about her death:

The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening 1945
With just her sister at her side
And only weeks before the guns
All came and rained on everyone

Anne Frank, at home at the Merwedeplein in Amsterdam in 1941Upon her apprehension, Anne was transferred to a concentration camp—Bergen-Belson near Hannover—with only her sister, and they were likely buried together (Frank, 1997). She was not actually buried alive of course—like her sister, she died of a Typhus outbreak originating from the camp’s deplorable hygienic conditions (ibid). Mangum likely puts it this way either because he found the words euphonious or because they express a conviction that, though her life was cut off so early, she lived as fully as she could, even up until the end. She is believed to have died in February or March, indeed just weeks before the Allied Forces achieved military victory in Germany (ibid). But more importantly Mangum uses Anne’s story to explore the relationship between suffering and beauty, and how they can exist concurrently. Proclaiming his love for her, the speaker establishes her innocence early on with the “roses” image. But by the end of the song, he laments how she has become dehumanized, the roses replaced with flies despite his desire to preserve her purity. In order to come to terms with her tragic death, the speaker imagines her reincarnation:

Now she’s a little boy in Spain
Playing pianos filled with flames
On empty rings around the sun
All sing to say my dream has come

Desperate to find joy in her story, he convinces himself that she still exists in some form, celebrating even as he acknowledges the hopelessly grim circumstances that surround his momentary happiness. An entry from Anne’s diary best sums up his emotional state: “[W]hat are you supposed to do if you become part of the suffering? You’d be completely lost. On the contrary, beauty remains, even in misfortune” (Frank, 1997, p. 208). The triumphant vocal melody and raucous accompaniment of the refrain breathe joy into what would otherwise come off as resignation:

But now we must pick up every piece
Of the life we used to love
Just to keep ourselves
At least enough to carry on

Only by preserving past joy in some form can the speaker bring himself to go on living. This amounts to an utter denial of the suffering that surrounds him, which he blots out with comforting spiritual interpretations and carefree celebration. This accounts for the song’s almost hysterically joyous and exuberant sound in contrast to the morbid lyrical content.

The second verse advances the example of Anne Frank’s death, and offers another perspective on how the speaker finds comfort in spite of her tragic demise. Longing for beauty and frustrated by its destruction all around him, he is comforted by a visit from the ghost of a deceased friend:

And now we ride the circus wheel
With your dark brother wrapped in white
Says it was good to be alive
But now he rides a comet’s flame
And won’t be coming back again
The Earth looks better from a star
That’s right above from where you are

Again, the color white makes an appearance. If considered according to Mangum’s spiritual beliefs involving an eternal white light that pervades all things, the brother is dead (“dark”) but his spirit is imbued with an undying glow now that he has passed into an incorporeal realm. He enjoyed life, but found greater peace in death, suggesting some higher plane of existence beyond. In an article for the Boston Phoenix, Carol Carioli (1998) reveals that this verse is about the suicide of the brother of one of Mangum’s friends. Another brief addition to the lyrics in the LP’s insert supports this insight. Right after the words “your dark brother,” Mangum appends the initials “h.p.” in parentheses. Though it is unclear exactly to whom they refer, this suggests that the brother in the song is indeed about a real, specific person. The last four lines of this verse apparently refer to a suicide by self-inflicted gunshot:

He didn’t mean to make you cry
With sparks that ring and bullets fly
On empty rings around your heart
The world just screams and falls apart

He is comforted by a belief that the brother meant no harm—he only wanted to escape the pain of life and move on to a more peaceful form of existence. The second verse also reveals something of an astronomical theme that hints at an overarching concept of the universal versus the personal. The brother rides a comet and views planet Earth from a star, and in the first verse, the speaker’s joy is all-encompassing as he celebrates along with everything within the “empty rings around the sun,” ostensibly the orbits of the planets. In contrast, his friend’s grief is highly personal, contained only within “empty rings around your heart.” The final lines recall the song’s initial innocent image of Anne and contrast it with the dehumanization she was ultimately subjected to:

And it’s so sad to see the world agree
That they’d rather see their faces filled with flies
All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes

The color white reappears again, this time to describe Anne’s innocence. Kim Cooper (2005) points out the peculiar similarity of these lines to the Munich-based anti-Nazi White Rose movement of the 1940s, but notes that Mangum had never heard of it when he wrote the song. It is more likely, then, that he used the white roses in the same sense that he describes the whiteness that enwraps the dark brother. The white roses that cover Anne’s eyes also resemble the “spirals of white” that flow over the eyelids of the two-headed boy, further evidence of the connection between her and this symbolic character.

As the speaker’s voice soars up an octave, filled with longing, the ensemble closes out the song with a horn arrangement consisting of a playful interchange between a slide trombone and the high descending moving thirds of the chorus. It evokes circus music in a genuinely festive manner, in contrast to the sardonic gloom of “The Fool,” referencing the ride aboard the circus wheel with the dark brother.

The hazy fantasy of “Communist Daughter” emerges fluently from the glee of “Holland, 1945.” While they were obviously recorded separately, “Communist Daughter” begins on the same G major chord that ends “Holland, 1945,” so the tape is simply spliced between that song’s final chord and the opening strum of “Communist Daughter” with surprisingly little interruption. Amusingly, it opens with the inverse of the count-in that starts “Holland, 1945;” here Mangum simply mutters, “one” on the first downbeat, which was conspicuously omitted from the count-in of “Holland.” The acoustic guitar plainly outlines the song’s simple I-V-IV chord progression as an organ oscillates between F# and G on each beat. All the while a sound collage of tape loops, transistor radio static, and scraps of white noise flutter in the background. The vocal melody is the album’s most minimal, consisting of only four notes and rarely straying from the G major triad.

Mangum sings the words in a low baritone whisper, reflecting the intimacy and introversion of the psychosexual lyrics, which juxtapose fundamental sexual imagery with nature. The communist daughter uses masturbation to affirm her own identity:

And wanting something warm and moving
Bends towards herself
The soothing proves that she must still exist
She moves herself about her fist

But just as sexual pleasure confirms reality for her, it alters her perception thereof:

Sweetness sings from every corner
Cars careening from the clouds
The bridges burst and twist around

Meanwhile, “Semen stains the mountaintops.” It is not immediately clear who exactly the communist daughter is and why this vignette manifests itself in the speaker’s mind. Perhaps the speaker’s euphoria in “Holland, 1945,” fueled by a blissful denial of the suffering around him, gives way to a near total loss of contact with reality. Visions of the communist daughter could be an extreme perpetuation of his escapism from the pain of existence. He has become so introverted that he plunges into the depths of his own psyche, manifesting the image of the communist daughter to represent his own subconscious urges. The episode may also serve to introduce sexuality in an innocent light in order to make its defilement all the more disturbing in the subsequent “Oh Comely,” undoubtedly the album’s darkest song. These two songs are connected more concretely in that they both borrow lyrics from a particularly sexual verse of the aforementioned bootleg, “Oh Sister,” which contains the couplet “To prove that she must still exist / she moves herself about her fist.” In that song the lines refer to Rose Wallace Goldaline, a character that reappears hauntingly at the end of “Oh Comely.”

As for the purpose and identity of the communist daughter herself, there are several possibilities. She almost certainly plays a similar role to that of the two-headed boy, functioning as a conduit for an overlying theme—in this case, sexuality and reality. She seems to be almost a blank slate, with no personal features, her existence defined only by sexual pleasure. In this respect, Cooper (2005) sees the communist daughter as something of a universal character, “a hermaphroditic fusion of man/woman, human/god, body/spirit. All things are present within the selves painted here” (p. 74). It seems more plausible, however, that just the opposite is true: that the communist daughter represents a self in the most narrowly-defined terms. While there is some blurring between her self and that of the speaker, she is ultimately completely self-absorbed—the essence of masturbation in a sense—and reality is defined completely through her altered perception of the world around her, which is in turn dictated merely by her immediate physical sensations.

It is likely that Anne Frank’s diary influenced the imagery of this vignette. As she progressed through puberty, she detailed many similar episodes of self-discovery. She wrote openly about the mental and physical changes she experienced, and some of her entries bear a resemblance to the tone of “Communist Daughter,” especially the following:

Sometimes when I lie in bed at night I feel a terrible urge to touch my breasts and listen to the quiet beating of my heart […] Every time I see a female nude, such as the Venus in my art history book, I go into ecstasy. Sometimes I find them so exquisite I have to hold back my tears! (Frank, 1997, p. 159)

Just as Anne permeates the rest of the album, there’s little doubt that she inhabits part of the communist daughter. For both Anne and the communist daughter, sexuality has the power to coat reality with a glow of exhilaration and inhibit logical interpretation of reality.

The collage of tape loops and white noise supports the unreality of the scene. While initially registering as a noisy haze, a close listen to the background sound design reveals its detailed allegorical role. Much of Jeff Mangum’s early musical composition consisted of abstract musique concrète pieces comprised of manipulated field recordings and tape loops, so the background noise of “Communist Daughter” is something of a nod to those formative years. Field recordings of various outdoor environments are subjected to a variety of simple manipulative techniques to transform their sounds. At the beginning of the song, high-pitched sounds—perhaps oscillators or noises altered by high-frequency delays—play alongside and emulate the sounds of real field recordings of crickets, which in turn subside into washes of white noise. Orchestral samples and some unidentifiably manipulated sounds are modularly speed- or pitch-shifted to imitate the Doppler effect of passing cars in reference to the “cars careening from the clouds,” as the fragmented and warped bursts of white noise and transistor radio clips evoke the way “the bridges burst and twist around.” The disparate sounds eventually fuse together into a drone of overlapping out-of-phase loops. The orchestral clips develop a steady pitch on B, and, as a trumpet coda enters, a second layer of orchestral clips emerges sounding an octave higher, an effect likely produced by running the lower samples at double speed. The loops continue after the conventional instrumentation has faded and disappear layer by layer, the decaying residue of reverie.

[6] It is likely that Mangum is present on the song, playing the floor tom, for which he is credited in the insert that accompanies the vinyl LP release.

[7] Mangum is officially given sole songwriting credit for all the songs except for Scott Spillane’s “The Fool” and “King of Carrot Flowers Part 2 and 3,” which is credited to the whole band for their contributions to part three.

Come back tomorrow for the final installment of Max Heath’s thesis… Update: The final installment is available now: Pts. Four and Five. If you missed the first installment, read Pts. One and Two now.

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

One thought on “Transience and Transcendence In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Pt. Three)”

  1. This is a brilliant, brilliant thesis. It confirms every inkling and suspicion I have ever had about what the album meant and stood for. It’s strange how you can pick up on themes without fully understanding the vehicle they are presented in.
    Bravo, Max Heath. I am ever grateful to you for writing and publishing this.

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