The final 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 earlier installments, read Pts. One and Two and Pt. Three 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.
As the hallucinatory wisps of “Communist Daughter” smolder and fade, the album descends into a new emotional depth for its final swoop, which comprises side two of the vinyl LP version. At over eight minutes long, the next track, “Oh Comely,” towers over the rest of the songs. It can be divided into three main sections; the first and second sections share similar chord changes but have different melodies, while the third is a formerly self-contained song previously titled “Goldaline” that is added on as a haunting coda (Cooper, 2005).
An E major chord opens the song, strummed on acoustic guitar in 3/4 with a vaguely menacing swing. E major will become the dominant key for much of the rest of the album. The song is mostly a single-take guitar and vocal performance, with the exception of some doubled vocals and horns that enter later on. In fact, the recording on the album preserves what was meant to be only a test of microphone levels with a few bars (ibid). Instead, Mangum, apparently swept up with the power of the song, plows through its entire duration with a remarkable, emotionally-wrought performance. His voice assumes the timbre of a sorrowful, pained moan. The chord progression consists of E major alternating with C major, but the melody of the first section superimposes E natural minor over the E major chord. Here Mangum’s loud, deep voice dominates the guitar’s tonality, which buries its major thirds by emphasizing the low fifth. Though the major tonality is clear during the instrumental breaks, as he sings the minor vocal melody all but obliterates the major key. This domination reflects the song’s subject matter, which laments the imposition of one force upon another, the invasion of suffering where it does not belong.
At the outset, the speaker seems to be anticipating the death of a loved one: “Oh comely / I will be with you when you lose your breath.” This foreboding is akin to the feelings Mangum experienced as he read Anne Frank’s diary. In an interview shortly after the album’s release, he recalled, “I pretty much knew what was going to happen. But that’s the thing: you love people because you know their story” (McGonigal, 1998, pp. 21-22). He expressed frustration that he could feel so close to someone who eventually “gets disposed of like a piece of trash” (ibid). Here, the word “comely” is surrounded by ugliness and decay, just as Anne was a beautiful presence amidst an abhorrent tragedy. Next, the key shifts to G major as the speaker briefly reflects on the contentment of the past: “Chasing the only meaningful memory you thought you had left / […] It isn’t as pretty as you’d like to guess / In your memory.” The G major key is reminiscent of the relative happiness of the previous few songs—the joy of the title track, the comforting pathos of “Two-Headed Boy,” the celebration of “Holland, 1945,” and the explorative, escapist fantasy of “Communist Daughter”—which are themselves already fading into vaguely pleasant memories under the weight of “Oh Comely.” Likewise, Anne often used nostalgia as a crutch, but her memories only produced temporary relief, which in turn quickly subsided into melancholy. As the key shifts back to the E major/minor hybrid, Mangum proclaims, “It doesn’t mean anything at all,” as if to say that the unrequited longing Anne endured as she suffered to prolong her life was pointless since she died before it could be satisfied.
The next verse seems to address Anne’s isolation during her time in hiding:
All of your friends are all letting you blow
Bristling and ugly
Bursting with fruits falling out from the holes
Of some pretty bright and bubbly
Friend you could need to say comforting things in your ear
But oh comely
There isn’t such one friend that you could find here
One of the consistent themes of Anne’s diary is her desire for a true friend who could understand her and with whom she could share her deepest secrets. She acknowledges repeatedly that her diary is in some ways a substitute for such a friend. In her times of personal despair, her principal complaint is that no one, not even her parents, understands her. In a letter to her father, she claims that nobody in the house even cares about her suffering: “When I was having problems, everyone—and that includes you—closed their eyes and ears and didn’t help me” (Frank, 1997, p. 279). The image of fruit flourishing within a vacuum of loneliness implies that no one around her was able or willing to access the beautiful products of her overflowing imagination and personality. The song returns to G major as the speaker’s mind drifts to violence: “Standing next to me / He’s only my enemy / I’ll crush him with everything I own.” Here the identities of the speaker and who is being spoken of become distorted as these violent impulses surface. The speaker could be lashing out at his own enemy or perhaps he sardonically inhabits the perspective of those who ended Anne’s life simply because she was designated an enemy.
As the key returns to E major, Mangum’s voice soars to the top of his range for the refrain: “Say what you want to say / And hang for your hollow ways / Moving your mouth to pull out all your miracle for me.” The last line of the refrain obscures the perspective even more, as it is so similar to a passage about Anne from the album’s title track:
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
This disturbing resemblance connects the speaker’s desire to reanimate Anne’s body with the violent, repugnant actions of those who killed her. Perhaps here the speaker finds his obsessive yearning to make Anne live again for his own pleasure comparably perverse to the actions of the agents of her demise.
Much of “Oh Comely,” especially the second section, borrows melodic, thematic, and lyrical content from its predecessor, “Oh Sister.” Mangum alluded to the similarity between these two songs in the earliest available live recording of his music, a solo acoustic concert on July 4, 1996, at Aquarius Records in San Francisco. While the first half of the song contains a few key words that appear in “Oh Comely,” such as “milking” and the titular “comely,” the second half is so similar to the second section of “Oh Comely” that it sounds like an embryonic form of the latter. Despite their different time signatures and tempos—”Oh Sister” is in 4/4 and much faster—the melodies of the two songs share many similarities in rhythm and pitch. Moreover, the vocal lines of both the first and second sections of “Oh Comely” are variations of a single melody from “Oh Sister” (see fig. 4.1-4.3).
Both the second section of “Oh Comely” and the second half of “Oh Sister” feature long, repetitive verses with a flood of lyrics, and their common theme of sexuality connects them even more closely. The lyrics of “Oh Sister” discuss the dark side of sexuality:
Rose Wallace Goldaline just moves her mouth over anything
Fleshy free and flowering with oranges out in the open
But don’t you waste your sins again
She don’t need you
Or won’t fuck your friends
And you, you’re American, so important boiling over
To prove that she must still exist
She moves herself about her fist
And does never ever give a shit
About all those words you’re wasting again
Some pretty bright and bubbly wondrous dream
You’d like to kill and claim
And claim her as your own
But don’t you worry
All those dainty and dirty emotions just go away and fade out on their own
The fertile beauty of Goldaline—who reappears later in “Oh Comely”—provokes perverse sexual fantasies in her admirers. The profanity in this song—a rare occurrence in the Neutral Milk Hotel discography—dispels any romantic notions about sex, depicting it as a vile and sinful act. Here sexual desire is conceived as an invasive imposition of power upon an innocent victim. The second section of “Oh Comely” approaches sexuality in a more conflicted fashion, juxtaposing its ugliness with its capacity for beauty:
Your father made fetuses
With flesh licking ladies
While you and your mother
Were asleep in the trailer park
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums
The music and medicine you needed for comforting
So make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving
And pluck all your silly strings
And bend all your notes for me
Soft silly music is meaningful magical
The movements were beautiful
All in your ovaries
All of them milking with green fleshy flowers
While powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines
Smelling of semen all under the garden
Was all you were needing when you still believed in me
The description of reproduction in the first two lines is somewhat repulsive as the speaker associates sex with a father’s betrayal of his daughter and her mother. Mangum says these particular lyrics reflect his disgust “about sex being used as a tool for power” (McGonigal, 1998, p. 21). But almost immediately afterward sexuality is viewed as a soothing source of healing. At the same time, the image of “fat fleshy fingers,” sung with a scornful sneer, carries on the repellent undertones of the first few lines. The connotation reverses yet again and beauty wins out as sexuality is likened to the mystical and emotional qualities of music and the sublime power of nature. Throughout the second section, the vocal melody yields to the major tonality of the E major chord, but reverts to E minor over the alternating C major chord. This constant oscillation in key supports the lyrical ambivalence between the grotesque and the beautiful. It is worth noting that the repeated use of the word “fleshy” may ground this section in Anne’s diary. In a detailed description of her own vagina, Anne uses this word twice in a single paragraph to describe its various parts (Frank, 1997). After the refrain, the dynamics fall and Mangum’s vocals are doubled in a low, eerie, wordless melody. The guitar goes tacet as the last low E sustains for several seconds. This note divides the preceding imagery of fertility from a chillingly direct reference to Anne’s death:
And I know they buried her body with others
Her sister and mother and 500 families
And will she remember me 50 years later
I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine
Though this blurs the facts somewhat, Anne was likely indeed buried in Bergen-Belson’s mass graves, possibly along with her sister (ibid). The vocal doubling just before these lyrics is the album’s most conspicuous use of the technique, representing one of the few artificial invasions upon the live performance captured in the song. Here the effect endows Mangum’s voice with an otherworldly grief. It invokes a shared experience of mourning, conjuring voices from the past buried along with Anne. He sings of Anne’s death over the decaying echoes of the last note of the doubled voices, and this morbid reference contrasts sharply with the overflowing fecundity of the previous verse. The juxtaposition harkens back to the original premise of its doppelganger section in “Oh Sister,” where violent sexual urges threaten to destroy a fertile beauty. In the corresponding section of “Oh Comely,” the threat is physically enacted, resulting in the real eradication of something beautiful. In this light, the preceding verse becomes a compendium of all that was lost in this destruction. The section ends with the ominous mantra: “Know all your enemies / We know who our enemies are.” This could be a reference to the fear Anne and her family experienced in hiding. The rhythmically propulsive strumming is abandoned here. Instead, each chord is struck once and sustained as Mangum taps the body of the guitar to produce a muted rhythm resembling a heartbeat. At the end of the second repetition, Mangum’s voice glides up an octave on the word “are.” The guitar accompaniment disappears temporarily as his voice sustains the high note nakedly, bridging the gap before the final section. A trumpet enters in unison as the word morphs into that section’s wordless melodic theme.
While the tonality, basic harmonic structure, and relative psychological state of the previous section are preserved, many clear differences reveal the final section’s origins as a separate song. The time signature shifts to 4/4, the guitar plays straight, propulsive eighth notes, and the tempo accelerates. The order of the shift from minor to major is reversed and the C major chord is replaced with A minor. After the introductory theme, the section contains a single brief verse:
Goldaline my dear
We will fold and freeze together
Far away from here
There is sun and spring and green forever
But now we move to feel
For ourselves inside some stranger’s stomach
Place your body here
Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine
This section is best understood through Mangum’s own explanation: “One of my new songs talks about Siamese twins freezing to death in the forest… One is saying, ‘Don’t worry. We’ve been attached forever, and we’ll end up in someone else’s stomach together anyway'” (Carioli, 1998). So it seems the identity of the speaker has shifted as well. The image of twins and the comforting intent brings to mind the two-headed boy. Just as the speaker tried to console the boy with sleep, here one twin tries to comfort the other with the thought of eternal peace in death. This notion has analogs in Anne’s diary, where she sometimes finds herself wishing for death to end her struggle:
I’ve asked myself again and again whether it wouldn’t have been better if we hadn’t gone into hiding, if we were dead now and didn’t have to go through this misery, especially so that the others could be spared the burden…
Let something happen soon, even an air raid. Nothing can be more crushing than this anxiety. Let the end come, however cruel; at least then we’ll know whether we are to be the victors or the vanquished. (Frank, 1997, pp. 303-304)
It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. (Frank, 1997, p. 328)
Death is no longer abstract or distant as it was casually avoided in “Holland, 1945,” but devastatingly real. The twins, like Anne, are cut off from all of humanity in their ultimate isolation. And Anne, buried in a mass grave, was in a sense fused to others who died with her. The twins could even represent the speaker’s emotional state as he merges his own identity with Anne’s in a dislocated sort of introjection. The following “Ghost” examines this idea more directly, imagining Anne’s ghost within the speaker’s own soul. As all optimism is abandoned, the last words in turn blend with a final repetition of the Goldaline theme, the vocals doubled and supported by a full horn arrangement, reminiscent of the thick gloom of “The Fool” in its dark tonality and crude countermelodies. The horns—especially the trumpet—are played so loudly that they go sharp, and this dissonance underscores the impact of the mourning as the song ends in a grim A minor.
“Ghost” returns to E major, opening with an upbeat strumming pattern, the roots on the downbeat and the full chords on the off-beats in the style of bluegrass or Irish folk. The Irish influences come to the fore in the untitled adjoined instrumental track that follows. This propulsive strumming technique endows the song with a sense of urgency. After a few measures of unaccompanied guitar, the explosively distorted bass from “King of Carrot Flowers Part 2 and 3” enters, evoking the same implication of superhuman power. “Ghost” shares that song’s sublime spiritual connotations, as well as the death-obsessed frenzy of “Holland, 1945.”
Another song made entirely out of I, IV, and V chords, “Ghost” takes the form of a 24-bar blues pattern in the first verse. The speaker sings of a spirit that haunts him in a spiraling melody over the E major chord, which is then transposed up a fourth over the A major chord. After it modulates back down for the return to E, Mangum’s voice rises on the last note of the melody, then trills around its descent from D# to B over the V-IV-I cadence, reflecting the whirling flight of the ghost. Anne Frank is present in this song as well:
When I started writing "Ghost," … we thought we had a ghost living in the house, in the bathroom. So I locked the door and started to sing to the ghost in the bathroom. But that was sort of like singing about the ghost who we thought was whistling in the other room, and that kept waking me up, and then also a ghost that may or may not live within me. And it ended up being a reference to Anne Frank, too. (McGonigal, 1998, p. 21)
The lyrics reflect the ghost’s transitional locus:
Ghost, ghost I know you live within me
Feel as you fly
In thunder clouds above the city
Into one that I love
With all that was left within me
‘Til we tore in two
Now wings and rings and there’s so many waiting here for you
The ghost first resides within the speaker, flies around the city, and fuses with Anne Frank. At this point, apparently, the speaker still feels spiritually merged with the ghost, until finally they split off from one another. “Rings” could be a reference to the word as it is used in “Holland, 1945;” the ghost may be traveling through outer space (“rings around the sun”), or surrounding the speaker’s own soul (“rings around your heart”). At the start of the second verse, the drums enter. The bass drum marks each beat and snare drum rim clicks sound on each offbeat in tandem with the rhythmic strumming of the guitar. Explosive snare rolls and cymbal crashes punctuate the end of each pair of measures. The added percussion propels the song forward and elevates the tension. A trumpet enters low in the mix as well, matching the sustained root notes of the distorted bass. The speaker imagines Anne’s birth as a sacred spiritual event:
And she was born in a bottle rocket 1929
With wings that ringed around a socket right between her spine
All drenched in milk and holy water pouring from the sky
I know that she will live forever
She won’t ever die
Anne was indeed born in 1929, and here she is depicted as an angel, consecrated and covered with life-sustaining milk. Whereas in “Holland, 1945” and “Oh Comely” he lamented her death and dehumanization, here the speaker celebrates her everlasting sanctity, finally assured that she never truly died after all now that her spirit lives on. This assertion implies a response to Anne’s own repeatedly expressed desire for immortality: “I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!” (Frank, 1997, p. 247). From the speaker’s perspective, she lives on not just because of her story, but because of the visceral connection he shares with her. At this point the song deviates from the form of the first verse for the refrain: “She goes and now she knows she’ll never be afraid.” Anne has been liberated from her earthly struggles and is no longer subject to fear and suffering. The wordless melody continues as the horns and drums swell, building the intensity further. Part of the melody and lyrics for this section are adapted from the ending of an unreleased song, “My Dream Girl.” It’s an appropriate reference, as that song was about a girl who died at the age of five, apparently before the speaker could even meet her. Nonetheless her soul persists: “And this day I can still hear the sound / Of a life in outer space.”
At the third verse, the offbeat clicks are replaced by full snare hits and the fills become louder, more extensive, and more chaotic. Just as in “Holland, 1945,” Mangum reinforces his conception of Anne through the story of another untimely death. Here a girl falls from a blazing apartment in New York. Just like Anne, though her earthly life is cut short, her spirit lives eternally. After the refrain, Mangum’s voice soars upward and the song’s ever-increasing tension finally erupts in catharsis. Zanzithophone and the singing saw play the theme in unison, seemingly conjuring the spirit of the ghost herself: the return of the bowed saw that symbolized Anne’s disembodied voice on “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” suggests that her ghost has joined in to sing along. As the melody ends, the chaos is pushed to its final extreme, drums thrashing on every eighth note as the bass sustains relentlessly. A chorus of horns and the zanzithophone repeat the final note in shorter and shorter periods as a dissonant electronically-delayed sound adds to the mass. The wailing saw—the ghost’s manifestation—quavers above all the other sounds, swoops down, soars upward and vanishes on the final attack.
The distorted bass sustains into the following untitled instrumental, a raucous, celebratory eruption over the I and V from the previous song. The Irish connotations implicit in the strumming pattern of “Ghost” become more prevalent as the principal melodic instrument here is the uilleann pipes, a traditional Irish instrument similar to the Scottish bagpipes. The melody is highly ornamental, filled with trills and flourishes, accompanied by acoustic guitar and organ. The theme is broken by short whimsical bursts of sliding trombone and organ arpeggios, evoking the frivolous glee of circus music one last time. The song is a jumble of odd juxtapositions: the traditional uilleann pipes and folk guitar with the modernity of the electronic organ and distorted bass; the Irish and circus connotations with a low-fidelity rock sensibility. It’s a sonic portrayal of the dislocation and anachronism present throughout much of the album’s thematic content. On the repetition of the theme, vocal harmonies enter with a chorus of triads. Containing the only vocal harmonies since the end of the first song, this section indulges in one final return to innocence and carefree happiness before the wistful melancholy of the final song.
The sustained last note of the uilleann pipes fades into a morass of electronically-delayed noise, out of which emerges the opening of “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two”. The singing saw makes its final appearance with a slow, haunting reprise of its multi-tracked theme from “In the Aeroplane over the Sea.” Evoking the album’s central theme of longing for joy amid suffering, the familiar sound is a faded memory of happier times that feeds into the sentimental quality of the album’s concluding song. The line actually begins in the G major key of “Aeroplane” but modulates gradually and microtonally so that it ends up in Ab major, the final song’s new key. This is a surprising shift, as the final section of the song has the same relative chord progression and melody as the earlier incarnation of “Two-Headed Boy.” This modulation reinforces a marked divide between the two versions.
It is almost certain that Mangum actually plays the chords as if the song were in G, but either tunes the guitar up a half-step or employs a capo on the first fret to accomplish the modulation. There are some chords in the song relying on open strings that would be very difficult and awkward to play otherwise. Further, in the solo acoustic concert recorded March 7, 1997 and later released as Live at Jittery Joe’s, Mangum plays parts one and two of “Two-Headed Boy” in the same key. Though his guitar is out of concert pitch throughout, judging from the keys of other songs performed, they are both relatively in G major. The same goes for a bootlegged solo performance at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, recorded April 12, 1998. The reason for the transposition of the album version is unclear. The song could have been recorded after the saw line, which happened to end on Ab, provoking the decision to perform the song in that key for a smooth transition. But it makes more sense that the transposition was intentional. The song reexamines much of the thematic content of the album that preceded it, but rather than constituting a mere retrospective, it advances a new perspective as the speaker emerges from his increasingly introverted state irrevocably altered by his psychological torment. Setting it in the same key as songs earlier in the album would fail to reflect this new emotional state accurately.
“Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two,” though still fairly straightforward, features more chord changes than any other song on the album. The first verse begins with an Ab major-Gb major-F minor progression, then moves into a section of I-V-IV, finishing with a ii-V-I cadence. The only accompaniment to the vocal melody is the gentle, steady strumming of the acoustic guitar, establishing a moderate tempo in 3/4. Mangum’s voice strikes a sentimental, world-weary tone, fitting for a song that seeks to bring closure to an exhausting psychological journey. The plaintive vocal melody breathes, first rising from middle C to Eb, then sighing down to F. Nearly the same figure is repeated in faster phases over the subsequent I-V-IV progression.
The first verse addresses a father who longs for a lover and a child, alluding to a son who grew old, departed, or passed away. Whatever the case, some essential quality has been lost that he yearns to replenish. The second verse seems to reintroduce a couple of the album’s main characters:
Blister please with those wings in your spine
Love to be with a brother of mine
How he’d love to find your tongue in his teeth
In a struggle to find secret songs that you keep wrapped in boxes so tight
Sounding only at night as you sleep
Anne’s presence is indicated by a reference to her appearance in “Ghost,” where she is depicted “with wings that ringed around a socket right between her spine.” The brother here resembles the “dark brother” from the circus wheel in “Holland, 1945,” especially in light of the suicidal references of the following verse. Interestingly, he is no longer “your dark brother,” but “a brother of mine,” subsumed into the speaker’s identity as immediate family. Alternate lyrics to the song from the Jittery Joe’s performance replace the word “blister” with “sister,” indicating Anne has undergone a similarly familial transformation. In this conception, the speaker imagines Anne and the brother as two of his siblings who each met death on quite different terms. Anne, despite her firm belief in life’s joy, has death imposed upon her by an exterior agent. Conversely, the brother has given up on the prospect of earthly happiness, ending his own life in favor of the peaceful bliss of death. The speaker—feeling connected to each extreme by his own blood—finds himself paralyzed, unable to decide which holds greater truth for him. The “secret songs” stored away that only play at night are likely a reference to powerful, repressed emotions that surface in dreams. These dreams are explored in the subsequent bridge, the song’s—perhaps the entire album’s—emotional centerpiece:
And in my dreams you’re alive
And you’re crying
As your mouth moves in mine
Soft and sweet
Rings of flowers round your eyes
And I love you for the rest of your life
Here over a I-ii-V-IV progression, the weariness of Mangum’s voice shifts to a longing tone. The melody crescendos twice at the top of his range; first as the speaker relives his imaginary embrace, his deepest longing realized for a fleeting moment, and again as he yearns for this love to be satisfied eternally. In his mind Anne is still innocent and beautiful, the flowers in her eyes with which she was born in “Holland, 1945” preserved just as he had hoped. Further establishing connections to that song, alternate lyrics from the Jittery Joe’s performance replace the words “for the rest of your life” with “nineteen-forty and five,” invoking the year of her death, which, in his fantasy, no longer stands between them.
The third verse examines the brother’s suicide more closely:
Brother see we are one and the same
And you left with your head filled with flames
And you watched as your brains fell out through your teeth
Push the pieces in place
Make your smile sweet to see
Don’t you take this away
I’m still wanting my face on your cheek
In his grief, the speaker merges himself with the brother just as he did with Anne’s spirit in “Ghost.” The flames and the disturbingly harsh reference to the aftermath of an apparent self-inflicted bullet wound suggest that the brother died in a state of anguish. Kim Cooper (2005) says that here, “…[T]he living who love [the brother] seek to undo the destruction and put him back together” (p. 76). Blurring the distinction between his love for the brother and for Anne, his language is strikingly similar to Anne’s own description of her longing for Peter Schiff her first love, as she alludes to a particularly moving dream she had, which stays with her through her last months in hiding:
I saw my face in the mirror, and it looked so different. My eyes were clear and deep, my cheeks were rosy, which they hadn’t been in weeks, my mouth was much softer. I looked happy, and yet there was something so sad in my expression that the smile immediately faded from my lips. I’m not happy, since I know Petel’s not thinking of me, and yet I can still feel his beautiful eyes gazing at me and his cool, soft cheek against mine… I love you, with a love so great that it simply couldn’t keep growing inside my heart, but had to leap out and reveal itself in all its magnitude. (Frank, 1997, pp. 163-164)
Just a few sentences later, she writes:
This morning I imagined I was in the front attic with Petel, sitting on the floor by the windows, and after talking for a while, we both began to cry. Moments later I felt his mouth and his wonderful cheek! (Frank, 1997, p. 164)
Anne’s entry and Mangum’s lyrics are so similar as to rule out coincidence. They share numerous key words in common—”crying”/”cry,” “mouth,” “soft,” “smile,” and “cheek,” among others—and depict very similar forms of catharsis, imagining the temporary satisfaction of longing seemingly beyond realization. The remarkable similarities suggest that Mangum gave special consideration to this particular entry— consciously or not—in writing his lyrics for these sections. Anne’s implicit presence in the speaker’s description of the brother confuses the boundaries between their identities; as the speaker tries to reassemble the pieces of the brother’s smile, he may also be attempting to restore the smile that faded from Anne’s lips as she longed for her lost lover. Complicating matters further, the speaker’s longing is so similar to Anne’s—literally based on it—that it is further evidence of the fusing of their identities in his mind. While the brother and Anne are the speaker’s siblings, he identifies so strongly with them that he is able to merge himself spiritually with each of them.
For the penultimate section, the chords are limited to I, IV, and V—the album’s fundamental building blocks—as the speaker uses spirituality to transcend his turmoil: “And when we break we’ll wait for our miracle / God is a place where some holy spectacle lies.” Unable to choose whether Anne or the brother better describes whether life is worth living, he finds solace in their shared fate: an eternal, sacred joy.
Finally, the theme from the first “Two-Headed Boy” is reprised, its melody and chord progression intact but integrated into part two’s transposed key and 3/4 time signature, the latter of which is alluded to in the last lullabic verse of part one. The words are sung in the same low octave of that section, with a similarly comforting intent:
Two-headed boy she is all you could need
She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires
And retire to sheets safe and clean
But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave
As the “Two-Headed Boy” theme is reprised in the context of the rest of the song, it suddenly becomes clear who the two-headed boy is, at least in part two: the speaker himself. Torn by two polarities—the example of Anne who yearned for life, and that of the brother who sought death—he nonetheless has merged himself with each; part of him desires to live on and experience life’s pleasures, while his other half wants to surrender to the peace of death. In this final stanza, Anne seems to make one last appearance. The two-headed boy in part one was building a magic radio for his lover, and perhaps the radio wires she gives to the two-headed boy here resemble some form of emotional sustenance that she provides to the speaker through her diary. Maybe Anne “gets up to leave” by dying, being unable to complete her diary, or failing to truly manifest herself before the speaker as he had hoped. In any case, she can no longer sustain the speaker with her nourishment, can no longer contribute to the construction of the speaker’s magic radio. This gives the radio an elevated significance. The influence of Anne Frank fuels the album, just as the two-headed boy’s lover contributes to his magic radio, which he plans to present to her as a gift; perhaps the songs themselves are Mangum’s own transcendent offering to the beauty that remains in misfortune.
Time has been kind to Aeroplane‘s reception. Initially received warmly among alternative media and indie rock circles, the album’s status has only grown as the years have revealed the extent of its influence. The increasingly prominent online indie rock review magazine, Pitchfork Media (1999), placed the album at #85 on its list of the top 100 albums of the 1990s, compiled a year after Aeroplane‘s release. Just four years later, however, Pitchfork (2003) revised its list and the album soared up to the top five. Similarly, upon Aeroplane‘s release, MAGNET magazine (2003) published a fairly positive review, but by the time it had formed its list of the top 60 albums of 1993-2003, it awarded the album the number one spot. Even mainstream sources, initially put off by the album’s unconventionality, have joined in extolling its merit. Rolling Stone first issued the album a lukewarm three-star review (Ratliff, 1998), but several years later the magazine was recognizing it as “a truly great record” (Bracket, 2004, p. 578). Jim DeRogatis (2003), frequent contributor to SPIN magazine, calls it “one of the most strikingly original psychedelic rock albums ever” (p. 542).
But years before it could enjoy its canonization, Neutral Milk Hotel had all but disbanded. According to his close friends, Jeff Mangum slowly lost his passion for the band under the pressures of its growing success. His former girlfriend (and zanzithophonist), Laura Carter, clarifies:
He didn’t want to take the music to a true, professional level—like what Nirvana did. And it was amazing up to the very end! Never losing intensity. But I think that was the fear. He wanted to go out at its peak and not ride the peak until it fades and then burns out. (Cooper, 2005)
Ever since the final official Neutral Milk Hotel appearance on New Year’s Eve of 1998, Mangum has kept a very low profile, refusing all but a handful of interviews. Though he has appeared sporadically in concert and on record backing up his Elephant 6 friends in bands like Circulatory System and Elf Power, he has not released any new music of his own.
But despite its fleeting tenure, Neutral Milk Hotel has become an indelible reference point for indie rock. Countless now-established artists claim to have been influenced by the band. Since Mangum has retreated into silence, it is looking less and less likely that there will ever be another Neutral Milk Hotel album. But in many ways Aeroplane is a fitting final statement. Uncorrupted by anything to follow, the music is frozen at peak intensity, and it goes on and on.
Bachner, Gavin. 2004. “The Carrot Flower Kingdom.” Retrieved April 2, 2007.
Brackett, Nathan, ed. 2004. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. New York: Fireside.
Carioli, Carly. 1998. “Neutral Milk Hotel’s epic ‘Aeroplane’.” Boston Phoenix, March 9. Retrieved February 16, 2007.
Cooper, Kim. 2005. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.
Cost, Jud. 1998. “Through the Looking Glass.” MAGNET, 34. Retrieved March 24, 2007.
DeRogatis, Jim. 2003. Turn on Your Mind. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard.
Frank, Anne. 1997. The Diary of a Young Girl: the Definitive Edition, edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler. New York: Bantam Books.
Griffis, Kevin. 2003. “Have You Seen Jeff Mangum?” Creative Loafing, September 4. Retrieved January 12, 2007.
McGonigal, Mike. 1998. “Dropping in at the Neutral Milk Hotel.” Puncture. 41:19, 21-22, 55-56.
Ratliff, Ben. 1998. “Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane over the Sea.” Rolling Stone: 781.
“Top 60 Albums 1993-2003.” 2003. MAGNET, 60. Retrieved March 27, 2007.
“Top 100 Albums of the 1990s.” 1999. Pitchfork Media. Retrieved April 2, 2007.
“Top 100 Albums of the 1990s.” 2003. Pitchfork Media. Retrieved April 2, 2007.
Walser, Robert. 1993. “Beyond the Vocals.” Pp. 26-56 in Running with the Devil. Wesleyan University Press: Hanover, CT.
XFM Radio. 1998. Interview with Jeff Mangum. Retrieved March 13, 2007 (MP3).
 The zanzithophone, played by Laura Carter on Aeroplane, is an electric MIDI saxophone, fingered and blown into like a normal saxophone, but producing a digital sound amplified through a speaker on the bell (Cooper, 2005).
 Anne’s pet name for Peter Schiff.
If you missed the earlier installments, read Pts. One and Two and Pt. Three now.
If you don’t already own this album, you owe it to yourself to buy it: Amazon, eMusic. Seriously. You need it.
5 thoughts on “Transience and Transcendence In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Pts. Four and Five)”
It is a testament to this album as a work of art that it inspires such careful and considered analysis. I commend Mr. Heath on his research. Any critique that dismantles and dissects an album of music, especially such a cohesive and visceral one as “In The Aeroplane…” would be at risk of becoming really annoying, especially if it wasn’t accurate. Fortunately, this thesis is accurate and deep; it illuminates and raises associations. Thanks to Max Heath for writing, and thanks to glono for posting.
this is very insightful and although i agree there is a sense of futility in psychoanalyzing psychadelic/transdental music, i also think this thesis encourages further experiencing itaos.
What an interesting thing to stumble onto at 2 AM. Made for a very captivating read.
Thorough analysis, and well thought-out and fair discussion of the album’s meaning and story.
The inspirations and parellels drawn to Anne’s diary are especially valuable. Enough is left in the dark so as to leave the reader wondering, willing to listen again, and that is by all means a good thing. The parellel between music and lyrics/mood is also very accurate.
Good job and thanks for offering such an entertaining and inspiring analysis of one of the best albums ever written.
Phenomenal deconstruction and analysis, thank you!