Saturday marked the 20-year anniversary of genre-revolutionizing album “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. Two decades later, “Aeroplane” still manages to influence indie music and capture unique facets of the human experience.
“One of the best feelings in the world is when you read or listen to something and it feels like something you’ve always known, but were never able to express,” said Ben Pierce, a sophomore and vocalist in a band called 1999.
Many would agree. “Aeroplane” is considered a seminal record that’s among the most significant works released in the genre, especially in terms of musical influence and cultural impact.
Today, this lo-fi concept album about Anne Frank is universally acclaimed, despite an initially lukewarm response from critics who were not quite ready for a reinvention of indie music.
The album’s tepid immediate response soon gave way to the acclaim it enjoys currently as music critics adjusted to a total reinvention of the indie genre.
“Most of the time, the animus of human taste and interest dictates what’s well-liked and ‘good,’” Pierce explained. “But, occasionally, something comes along that’s so astoundingly, undeniably good that it’s, like, ‘Fuck you, you’re gonna like this.’ ‘Aeroplane’ created a taste.”
In the twenty years since the release of the band’s magnum opus on Feb. 10, 1998, its influence has only grown. It was the sixth best-selling vinyl album in 2008, a full 10 years after it came out.
A full fifth of a century later, we are left to consider exactly why it did, though. Obviously, the album is phenomenal. Listen to it yourself — you’ll find its structure nearly perfect, its every song raw, evocative, and gorgeously well-performed, thanks in large part to the incredible work of frontman Jeff Mangum, who was so driven to create the album that he believed he was being possessed by ghosts. But there’s something even more profound at work, too. First-year student musician Eleanor Lenoe talked about what she thinks sets “Aeroplane” apart.
“I think we listen to music to find out what it means to be human. ‘Aeroplane’ taps into a vein of [human] peculiarity that can’t be found in other albums. That weirdness […] I’m talking ‘Two-Headed Boy’ [the album’s fourth track, rife with unsettling lyrical imagery and rich, vivid instrumentation]. Other singer-songwriters wouldn’t describe codependence that way. That disgusting image,” said Lenoe.
“Two-Headed Boy” is far from “Aeroplane’s” only song with intense, visceral themes and imagery. Often disturbing, sometimes sexual, always profound, “Aeroplane” is far from a safe album.
Lenoe elaborated on what she sees as the album’s unique, visionary and sometimes frightening humanity.
“It hits all the markers for a good piece of art. It’s relatable, it’s powerful, it’s unique […] it’s hard to put into words. Maybe it’s because we don’t really talk in the same way that the album speaks to us. It’s a different realm of speech.”