When reviewing In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a term like ‘influential’ just doesn’t seem to cover it. Neutral Milk Hotel’s final full album (their second or third, depending on whether you include the obscure Hype City Soundtrack), the influence of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has seemingly seeped through independent / alternative guitar music ever since its release twenty years ago. From the wonky pop of the likes of The Unicorns or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, to the immense big music of Arcade Fire, to an entire generation of alternative folksters, to the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is an almost spectral presence, it’s influence not screamed, but implied.
When it was first released in February 1998, nothing else sounded like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It didn’t even fit in with the other lo-fi sounds that were bubbling away in the underground, and the closest thing we had in the UK were the Beta Band, and even that comparison was a stretch far beyond comfortable parameters.
So what makes In the Aeroplane Over the Sea so special? It certainly has an otherworldly quality, but quite why is hard to pin down. The lo-fi qualities certainly give it an intimate quality, as if the album is a shared secret between yourself, Jeff Mangum, and his bandmates. Then there are Mangum’s lyrics, painting odd vignettes for you to squirrel away in obscure corners of your mind, a secret gift from Neutral Milk Hotel to you.
The thing is, you share that secret. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was not an album that found anything more than modest commercial success, instead the people that heard it were hugely influenced by it, and in turn recommended it to others, who then recommended it to their friends that they deemed deserving of such a unique listening experience, and so on, and so forth. Eventually it became a byword for lo-fi psychedelic folk, a semi-obscure password to figure out if the person you were conversing with knew anything about indie-pop, or whether they were just bluffing.
Due to it’s unique sonic architecture, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has not dated in the two decades since its release. If you’d never heard it before and someone played it to you, and told you that it had been released last week, you’d believe them. The lack of production gloss has ensured that it retains a curiously ageless listening experience all these years later, and it remains a refreshing album to listen, particularly through a decent pair headphones, where the guitar sounds like it’s being strummed somewhere inside your own cranium.
If In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has a commercial moment, it is “Holland, 1945”, where the acoustic folkiness is briefly laid aside in favour of distorted electric guitar fuzz.And then you listen to the lyrics and realise that it’s not commercial at all. The discordant riffing entwines itself with the strummed acoustic on “Ghost”, which eventually builds up to something which comes oddly close to being a rock song courtesy of some crashing drums, well placed brass and a sense of building confidence.
On the whole though, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is an intimate listen, albeit one that has connected with those with a musical ear down the years since its release. Much like The Velvet Underground and Nico, it is one of those albums that, when you do finally slot it into popular music’s jigsaw, you are surprised just how many other acts it has influenced. It’s a shame then that it was Neutral Milk Hotel’s final album, and that Mangum has only sporadically returned to the music industry since then, as should he ever decide to return to the recording studio, the results would be greeted with open arms.