Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: 33 1/3

Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: 33 1/3

by Kim Cooper, ISBN 0-8264-1690-X

For most of their fans, a huge part of the attraction to Neutral Milk Hotel is the mystery surrounding the band. Creative powerhouse Jeff Mangum has always been deliberately enigmatic. He went into total media silence just as his 1998 masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea rose to unprecedented internet fame. The strangeness of the music coupled with the absence of someone to explain it made the character of Mangum essential to his music's success. The 29th volume in the 33 1/3 series offers plenty in the way of biography without quite dispelling the Mangum mystery. 

It would be easy to imagine Mangum as a recluse, feverishly jotting down songs in some rundown apartment, leaving only to play the occasional show. The cliche of the genius pariah might be compelling, but the book fortunately dispels it. Jeff Mangum was always a social being, and Neutral Milk Hotel was born out of a collective of weird and wonderful creatives. He'd been playing fuzz-rock in Athens since high school with many of the same friends who went on to contribute to Aeroplane

If you've salvaged any of their demos from the internet, you'll know that embryonic Neutral Milk Hotel sounded almost nothing like the record that grandfathered indie rock as we know it. Screeching and manic, Mangum's early bands (going by names like Milk and Synthetic Flying Machine) were a playing ground for wild sonic experiments. He was as much a collector of sound as a producer of it, often weaving long samples of talking or street noises into his songs. You can hear vestigal feedback experiments on NMH's first record On Avery Island, but Mangum shed them entirely in favor of instrument sounds on his final album.

The book offers often poetic glimpses into the process of the album's creation. Its most memorable image is of Mangum's songwriting process, how he would rarely put chords or lyrics on paper but instead walk around with a guitar bellowing his songs over and over until he felt they were finished. His obsession with Anne Frank, the primary subject of Aeroplane, is elucidated further. He would repeatedly see a girl on the streets that he believed to be a vision of Frank from the past. He kept dreaming about her family. Her innocence and the tragedy of her life made for fertile writing as he wove the personal tragedies of those close to him into the album's narrative. 

Kim Cooper's personal research for the book is impressive, as Mangum and most of his associates are notoriously wary of the press. While she had no contact with the man himself, the details she managed to extract from those close to him make for a beautiful biography. She chooses a journalistic style that separates this volume from the rest of the 33 1/3 series. Rather than focus solely on the music and its repercussions, or get bogged down with common knowledge about the band, she dives in to uncover moments in the band's history that fans will be fascinated by. For those of us who were too young when Aeroplane came out to appreciate it then, this book sheds light on its creation. For me, as an insatiable NMH fan fascinated by the character of Jeff Mangum, it's the most enjoyable 33 1/3 in the series.