Where were you when you first heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? I was a college radio DJ, and I remember seeing the CD on a table (it had just come out), and someone had put a piece of masking tape on it that simply read: "I LIKE TRACK #6!" And so I played it that day on my show (track six is "Holland 1945," the fuzzy, bombastic one), and fell in love. No other record mattered as much. But here's what's great about that: I am not special. So many people have a story like that with this record — a girlfriend put "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" on a mixtape, a friend tried to pass off "Two-Headed Boy" as his own. This album is not only intensely personal in its perspective (we all felt like we knew leader Jeff Mangum after hearing it), but intensely personal in its reception. It is also, to put it bluntly, one of the greatest albums ever made.
Broad strokes first: Yes, the album has roots in the tragedy of Anne Frank and the Holocaust. In a tremendous interview at the time in Puncture with eMusic's own Mike McGonigal (read it here), Mangum said:
"While I was reading [The Diary of Anne Frank], she was completely alive to me… So here I am 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. And then at the end, she gets disposed of like a piece of trash. I would go to bed every night and have dreams about having a time machine, having the ability to move through time and space freely, and save Anne Frank."
It's an album of empathy, of fear, of the everyday horror of insecurity and doubt. It's an album that has "Oh Comely," its streams and streams and streams of words anguishing between religion and sex and love and death, Mangum, broken, singing, "I know they buried her body with others/ Her sister and mother and 500 families/ And will she remember me 50 years later?/ I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine/ We know who our enemies are," and then a muted trumpet mourning like at a Gypsy funeral. It's an album where Anne Frank dies but "now she knows she will never be afraid." It's an album by a man whose nerves are so raw, his senses so acute, that all pain is his pain, all life is his life, all death is his death. And he can't escape it. Ever.
Yet it is a glorious album, too. It is intensely sad, perversely morose, and yet there is so much joy. There is the exaltation of "Untitled," the horns of heaven welcoming him and little Anne home. There is the unreal beauty of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," "What a beautiful face/ I have found in this place/ That is circling all round the sun," it begins, the Theremin ringing and the saw singing, and then the heartbreaking end jumps up before we can turn away: "And one day we will die/ And our ashes will fly/ From the aeroplane over the sea," the words 'beauty so striking that it takes a moment to realize their horror, and yet still a romantic shock lingers. Would this be so bad a way to go?
Mangum hasn't made a Neutral Milk Hotel album since. It's been more than a decade, and yet Aeroplane looms like the truest possible words at the worst possible time. It could not be more beautiful. It could not be more vulnerable. In that interview with McGonigal, Mangum said something else that reveals so much. "I don't consider myself to be a very educated person," he said, "'cause I've spent a lot of my life in dreams." With In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, he released those dreams to the world. And they were perfect.