It’s been a few years since I listened to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” It’s one of those albums that reminds me so much of a particular time in my life that it can be hard to go back and listen to.
But I’m glad I did.
I was in junior high when I first listened to Neutral Milk Hotel. The song was "Holland, 1945." I thought I had just stumbled across some odd, off-the-beaten path, indie rock, one-hit wonder. It felt like no one had ever known about the band, and no one ever would.
Well, I was wrong.
I later realized Neutral Milk Hotel had a sincere cult following, renewed with freshly-minted and self-declared edgy teenagers every few years.
Looking back, I think some old version of me would want to make fun of the teens who loved Neutral Milk Hotel just so they would seem edgy. But that would make me a hypocrite because everyone has that album that makes them feel “edgy.” It’s like a rite of passage. It’s just a part of growing up.
Music has a weird ability to bring out a rebel in all of us. I strongly believe we all have at least one album that randomly makes us dance in the middle of the night, makes us drive faster as we listen to it in the car or makes us feel extreme levels of emotions.
I can relate to a scene on the TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” when the protagonist, Lindsay, gets introduced to the Grateful Dead’s 1970 album “American Beauty.” Lindsay starts the record album over and over again with a genuine smile on her face every time.
In the same way, I couldn’t hide my smile when I listened to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” for the first time. I didn’t smile because I understood what Jeff Mangum, the lead singer of Neutral Milk Hotel, was trying to say, though.
I smiled because I knew what it meant to me. And that’s all that mattered.
And years later, when I was doing a random Google search to see if Neutral Milk Hotel was going to get back together to release a new album, I stumbled across something very interesting.
There have always been rumors swirling around that Mangum wrote the songs on “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” about Anne Frank. Seeking validation to these rumors, PJ Sauertig asked if the lyrics “Goldaline, my dear / We will fold and freeze together / Place your body here / Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine” in the song “Oh Comely” was about Frank, and the only answer Mangum gave him was this:
“No.But, I mean, it could mean that if you want it to.”
And that was the beauty of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” for me. I smiled because it could mean whatever I wanted it to mean, just like “American Beauty” meant whatever Lindsay wanted it to mean. And that is an incredibly powerful feeling when you’re just a teenager.
Overall, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is littered with cryptic lyrics, melancholy rhythms and an offbeat vibe. If you take too much time trying to decipher exactly what Mangum and the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel meant by all of it, then you actually missed the point entirely.
The point is for you to create your own meaning because if the songs mean something to you, and that meaning is different than someone else’s meaning, it doesn’t matter. That goes for every song on the planet.
As long as it makes you smile, then let it mean whatever it means.
So, long story short, another Neutral Milk Hotel album would be pretty nice right about now. They haven’t released an album since “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” came out in 1998, and even though an article announced in 2013 that they had gotten back together, no album has been released.
But hey, it’s 2020. Stranger things have happened this year. And I want everyone to experience a Neutral Milk Hotel album at some point in their life. Maybe a new album would put them back in the spotlight.
And then maybe we’ll all be foolishly dancing around our rooms, smiling and determining what all the words, notes and rhythms mean for ourselves.
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