In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

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In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
In the aeroplane over the sea album cover copy.jpg
Studio album by
ReleasedFebruary 10, 1998
RecordedJuly–September 1997
StudioElephant 6, Denver
ProducerRobert Schneider
Neutral Milk Hotel chronology
On Avery Island
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Ferris Wheel on Fire
Singles from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
  1. "Holland, 1945"
    Released: October 13, 1998

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the second and final album by the American indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel. It was released in the United States on February 10, 1998 on Merge Records and in the United Kingdom in May 1998 on Blue Rose Records. Songwriter Jeff Mangum moved from Athens, Georgia to Denver, Colorado to prepare the album's material with producer Robert Schneider at Schneider's new Pet Sounds Studio in the home of musician Jim McIntyre. Mangum wrote many of the lyrics about Anne Frank, the teenage diarist who died in a Nazi concentration camp.


Photo of a man holding a guitar with a microphone nearby
Jeff Mangum performing with Neutral Milk Hotel on October 28, 1996.

In the early 1990s, a group of musicians from Ruston, Louisiana formed the Elephant 6 collective, which grew to encompass dozens of bands from the small city.[1] The members included childhood friends Jeff Mangum and Robert Schneider, who helmed various bands and side-projects.[2]

After graduating from high school, Mangum had moved from city to city, while Schneider settled down in Denver, Colorado.[3] In Seattle, Mangum released a single, "Everything Is", on Cher Doll Records under the name Neutral Milk Hotel.[4] The single brought enough exposure to convince Mangum to record more material under the Neutral Milk Hotel name. He moved to Denver and worked with Schneider to record the album On Avery Island.[5] The recording sessions strengthened the musicianship between Mangum and Schneider. While Schneider was interested in a Beatlesque style of production, he deferred to Mangum's preference for a lo-fi sound. "At first it was frustrating, but I came to enjoy it. That's how I learned to produce, doing that record, because I totally had to let go of what I thought it should be like."[5]

After the release of On Avery Island, Mangum began looking for bandmates to tour with.[6] While living in Ruston, Mangum befriended New York musician Julian Koster, who had grown tired of interacting with industry executives. The two sent demo tapes between each other, and eventually Koster joined Neutral Milk Hotel as the bassist.[7] During this period, Koster received a letter from Chicago-based drummer Jeremy Barnes.[8] Barnes wrote how he felt he was being led down a different life than he was supposed to live.[8] Koster and Mangum were impressed, and traveled to Chicago to meet him. After a short audition, the two asked Barnes to drop out of DePaul University and join the band, to which he agreed.[8] The final group member came when Mangum was traveling to New York City to live with Koster. While on a stop in Austin, Mangum met former Rustonian musician Scott Spillane, who was working at a pizza shop. Mangum helped make pizzas during the late-night "drunk rush", after which he asked Spillane to join the band. Spillane agreed, and handed in his two weeks notice the following day.[9]

The band lived and rehearsed in a house owned by Koster's grandmother.[6] Koster encouraged the band members to play instruments outside their comfort zones. For example, drummer Barnes learned to play the accordion,[10] and Spillane learned how to play the horn parts from On Avery Island, and practiced on a two-valve horn for hours every day.[10]

On July 1, 1996, Neutral Milk Hotel began a national tour, when the band members learned to play as a unit.[11] During the tour, Mangum occasionally played some solo gigs, and debuted In the Aeroplane Over the Sea tracks including "Oh Comely", "Ghost", and the then untitled "Holland, 1945".[12] The band earned enough money to move to Athens, Georgia, where a large group of Elephant Six musicians were living.[13] By the spring of 1997, Mangum had written and demoed nearly every song on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. He shared these demos with his bandmates before they moved to Denver to record the album.[14]


In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was produced by Schneider, and was recorded from July to September 1997. It was recorded at Pet Sounds Studio in Denver, the home of Schneider's friend Jim McIntyre.[15] Schneider paid half the rent for access to every room in the house except McIntyre's bedroom.[16] The recording sessions for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea coincided with several other sessions. Schneider was already producing Hooray for Tuesday for the Minders when Neutral Milk Hotel members began to arrive, and decided to halt production until In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was finished. McIntyre was recording the Von Hemmling song "My Country 'Tis of Thee" in his bedroom while the band members played, and whenever Koster was not needed, he would work on songs for the Music Tapes, such as "Television Tells Us" and "Aliens".[17]

Schneider separated the band members into different rooms, but always kept Mangum close to the control room in case he wanted to plug Mangum's acoustic guitar into a four-track cartridge. Schneider occasionally tried using an electric guitar, but would wipe these recordings as he felt it did not sound like Mangum's music. As the sessions progressed, Schneider wanted to find a way to record the acoustic sound into a microphone instead of into the cartridge. He decided to record the sound through Neumann U 87 microphones. According to Scheider: "[Mangum] liked an acoustic plugged in because he kinda found it fuzzy and raw, like an electric guitar, but it had a strummy quality to it, too ... I had developed an acoustic guitar sound on my own that he was really happy with by the second record, and I think it's really good."[18]

Neutral Milk Hotel biographer Kim Cooper believes In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of the most heavily distorted albums ever made, but also notes the lack of equipment such as Big Muffs or distortion pedals. Mangum liked having a layer of distortion over the music, but Schneider could not afford standard effects equipment. Instead, Schneider maxed out the sound compressors and placed a Bellari RP-220 tube mic pre-amp close to his guitar. The sound coming from the acoustic guitar already had a small amount of distortion due to the strings. Schneider then ran the sound through a mixing console, and maxed out the sound on a cassette tape. This process was done for nearly every instrument used on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Schneider noted how microphone distortion is nonlinear, which he believes gave the album its unique "warm feeling".[19]

The horn arrangements on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea were primarily written by Schneider. He wrote these parts on a piano or organ, then conferred with trombonist Rick Benjamin to ensure the musical notation was correct. Spillane was the last band member to arrive, so Schneider showed him the arrangements he had already written. The trumpets were written in treble clef, but as Spillane could only read bass clef, he had to rewrite these arrangements before he could learn them. Like he did while learning the songs for On Avery Island, Spillane spent hours every day practicing and writing more arrangements in the basement. Toward the end of the recording sessions, Schneider and Spillane worked together to seamlessly combine their differing arrangements. Schneider's parts were more melancholic while Spillane wrote chaotic and boisterous parts. When asked about the horns on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Koster said: "The tension of Scott being heartfelt, explosive, and Robert trying to superimpose arrangement and control, made for something nice".[20]



In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is difficult to categorize into a specific music genre.[21] Critics generally describe the album's music as indie rock,[22] psychedelic folk,[23] and lo-fi,[24] but also note the wide range of influences, including: Eastern European choral music, Canterbury Sound, circus music, musique concrète, drone music, free jazz, and Tropicália.[25][26] Jason Ankey of AllMusic likened the music to that of a "marching band on an acid trip",[24] while Kim Cooper wrote: "the music is like nothing else in the 90s underground".[27] Part of the musical variance comes from the instruments used on the album. Traditional instruments like the accordion, drums, and distorted guitars are mixed with more unique instruments like the singing saw, zanzithophone, and Uilleann pipes.[25]

Despite the wide variety of music and instruments, Jeff Mangum's guitar strumming is a key component for much of the album. Mangum often plays simple chord progressions, which Erik Himmelsbach of Spin compared to 50s progression.[28] Mangum plays several other instruments on the album, including the organ, floor tom, and fuzz bass. This is a trend for nearly every musician involved with the album.[15] Another important aspect is the heavy distortion that sometimes permeates the music, which was the result of using outdated recording equipment such as a 4-track cartridge.[26]

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea emphasizes structure and texture, and songs seamlessly segue into one another.[24] The musical tempo however can greatly shift depending on the song. Slower, more somber songs such as "Two-Headed Boy" and "Communist Daughter" are contrasted with rapid-paced, punk rock-like songs such as "King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3" and "Holland, 1945".[29] Critic Chris Deville wrote: "On the musical axis, Neutral Milk Hotel veered from piercingly intimate psychedelic campfire sing-alongs to full-band segments that barreled ahead with haphazard grace ... everyone bashing away with such rudimental force that the songs seemed ready to topple over at any moment."[22]

Lyrics and vocals[edit]

Arguably the most famous and heavily analyzed aspect of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea are the lyrics, which were written by Mangum.[27] Critics have used many descriptors when discussing the lyrics, such as "abstract", "cryptic", and "surrealistic".[24][30] Author Jim DeRogatis wrote: "[In the Aeroplane Over the Sea] brings to mind Dr. Seuss illustrating William S. Burroughs, or perhaps Sigmund Freud collaborating on lyrics with Syd Barrett."[31]

Mangum wrote much of the album about Anne Frank, a teenage girl who died in a German Nazi concentration camp. Before recording Neutral Milk Hotel's previous album, On Avery Island, Mangum read The Diary of a Young Girl, the diary Frank kept while she was in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.[26] He was deeply affected by the book and spent "about three days crying", having dreams of travelling back in time and saving her;[26] this inspired the lyrics of "Oh Comely", in which Mangum sings: "I know they buried her body with others / her sister and mother and 500 families / and will she remember me 50 years later / I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine."[32] The album references Frank obliquely throughout, creating a loose concept album.[25]

The song "Ghost", which contains the line "Ghost ghost I know you live within me", was inspired by a ghost Mangum believed lived in his house and "kept waking me up". The line is also a reference to Frank.[26] Mangum recorded his part of "Oh Comely" in one take; at the end of the song, a stunned band member can be heard shouting "Holy shit!"[1] The final track, "Two Headed Boy, Pt. Two", concludes with the sound of Mangum setting down his guitar and walking away.[1]


The postcard art edited by Chris Bilheimer to create the album cover

Merge Records expected to sell 5,500 CD and 1,600 vinyl copies of In the Aeroplane over the Sea.[33] In 2008, Slate reported that the album was selling 25,000 copies a year.[1] It was the sixth-best-selling vinyl album of 2008.[34] By 2013, sales in the United States had exceeded 393,000.[35]

The cover art was created by Mangum and R.E.M. designer Chris Bilheimer.[36] Mangum showed Bilheimer an old European postcard depicting people bathing at a resort, which Bilheimer cropped and altered to create the cover.[37] Elephant Six musician Bryan Poole said that "Mangum was always into that old-timey, magic, semi-circus, turn-of-the-century, penny arcade kind of imagery."[37] Bilheimer also designed a broadsheet-style lyrics sheet for the album, and helped title "Holland, 1945" in the process; Mangum wanted to use either "Holland" or "1945", and Bilheimer suggested he use both.[38]

Critical reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Contemporaneous reviews
(published in 1998)
Review scores
Entertainment WeeklyB+[39]
Rolling Stone3/5 stars[42]

In a contemporary review of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the College Music Journal called the album "a true lo-fi pop landmark" and cited "Holland, 1945" as a highlight.[43] Pitchfork's M. Christian McDermott described the album as "just as catchy as it is frightening" and wrote that it "does a credible job of blending Sgt. Pepper with early 90s lo-fi".[44] Spin's Erik Himmelsbach described it as an "unsettling travelogue torn between melancholy and glee", writing that Mangum "keeps you fixed on his every bewildered word".[28] Jason Ankeny of AllMusic wrote: "lo-fi yet lush, impenetrable yet wholly accessible, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is either the work of a genius or an utter crackpot, with the truth probably falling somewhere in between." Ankeny also praised Mangum's vocals as "far more emotive" than they were on On Avery Island, and wrote of the lyrics: "Mangum spins his words with the rapid-fire intensity of a young Dylan, the songs are far too cryptic and abstract to fully sink in — In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is undoubtedly a major statement, but just what it's saying is anyone's guess."[24]

Robert Christgau of the Village Voice rated the album a "neither".[45] While he later wrote that the album "convinced alt diehards that maturity can be just as weird as growing up", he also called it "a funereal jape that gets my goat."[46] Ben Ratliff of Rolling Stone felt the album lacked editing and criticized Mangum's "strained" and "affectless" singing. He concluded: "For those not completely sold on its folk charm, Aeroplane is thin-blooded, woolgathering stuff."[42] While discussing In the Aeroplane Over the Sea's initial reception, journalist Luke Winkie wrote: "It's the standard response to a confusing second album from a band without a preexisting pedigree: distant praise, hedged bets, avoiding the heart at all cost."[47]


Professional ratings
Retrospective reviews
(published after 1998)
Review scores
AllMusic5/5 stars[24]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music5/5 stars[48]
Mojo4/5 stars[30]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide4.5/5 stars[29]
Uncut4/5 stars[50]

After completing a tour for In the Aeroplane, Mangum disappeared from the public eye, tired of performing and explaining his lyrics. His bandmates were keen to capitalize on the album's success, but Mangum was not interested, and declined an offer to open for R.E.M.[1] In the words of Slate, "At the end of Aeroplane's final song, you can hear Jeff Mangum [...] set down his guitar and walk off, and [...] that's exactly what Mangum did in real life."[1]

Subsequent reviews from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone were more positive; the latter gave the album four and half of five stars in its 2004 The New Rolling Stone Album Guide: Completely Revised and Updated 4th Edition, with reviewer Roni Sarig writing, "Mangum had put together something resembling an actual band, resulting in a far richer and more organic sound [than On Avery Island]. What's more, the songwriting had blossomed far beyond the bounds of Elephant 6 (or indie rock as a whole), with Mangum etching out timeless transcendentalist pop steeped in a century of American music (from funeral marches to driving punk)." Sarig also commended the album for its "passionate acoustic-guitar strums, irresistible melodies, and lyrics that rarely feel obtuse even when they're nonsensical."[51] Pitchfork, in a 2005 review written by Mark Richardson, gave the album a perfect score. Richardson praised the lyrical directness and "kaleidoscopic" musical style.[49] PopMatters named a reissue of the album one of the best of 2005, and wrote, "Aeroplane is arguably the pinnacle achievement of the Elephant 6 Collective (including bands like the Apples in Stereo, Circulatory System, Beulah), but its influence is wider still, in the obvious places (the Decemberists, the Arcade Fire) but also far beyond."[52] In 2014, Spin regarded the album as "a classic" and the band's "psych-folk opus."[53]

Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler named Aeroplane as a chief reason that his band signed to Merge.[54] Jesse Lacey of Brand New called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea "the greatest record ever written", and has covered "Holland, 1945", "Oh Comely", and "Two-Headed Boy, Part Two" in concert.[55][56] In August 2010 The Swell Season covered "Two-Headed Boy" for The A.V. Club's A.V. Undercover series.[57] Later, in the same year, American musical duo Dresden Dolls also covered "Two-Headed Boy" for The A.V. Club's Holiday Undercover series.[58] In 2010 a group called Neutral Uke Hotel began touring playing ukulele covers of all the songs on the album.[59] Phish covered "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" in a concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland on June 26, 2010.[60]

Track listing[edit]

All tracks written by Jeff Mangum, except where noted; horn arrangements by Robert Schneider and Scott Spillane.

1."The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One"2:00
2."The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three" (Jeremy Barnes, Julian Koster, Mangum, Spillane)3:06
3."In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"3:22
4."Two-Headed Boy"4:26
5."The Fool" (Spillane)1:53
6."Holland, 1945"3:15
7."Communist Daughter"1:57
8."Oh Comely"8:18
11."Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two"5:13
Total length:39:55


Credits adapted from the liner notes of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.[15]

Neutral Milk Hotel

Additional musicians


  • Chris Bilheimer – art direction
  • Jeff Mangum – art direction
  • Brian Dewan – "Flying Victoria" illustration


Publication Country Accolade Year Rank United States The 100 Greatest Indie Rock Albums of All Time[61] 2009 #2
Blender United States 100 Greatest Indie-Rock Albums Ever[62] 2007 #32
Entertainment Weekly United States Indie Rock 25[63] 2008
Magnet United States Top 60 Albums, 1993-2003[64] 2003 #1
NME United Kingdom The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time[65] 2013 #98
Pitchfork United States Top 100 Albums of the 1990s[21] 2003 #4
Paste United States The Best 90 Albums of the 1990s[66] 2012 #2
Q United Kingdom Top 30 Albums of the Past 25 Years[67] 2010 #16
Spin United States 100 Greatest Albums, 1985-2005[68] 2005 #97
Village Voice United States Pazz & Jop: Albums of the Year[69] 1998 #15

(*) denotes an unranked list.


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  2. ^ Cooper 2005, p. 12.
  3. ^ Ballance, Cook & McCaughan 2009, p. 94.
  4. ^ Cooper 2005, p. 21.
  5. ^ a b Cooper 2005, pp. 22–24.
  6. ^ a b Ballance, Cook & McCaughan 2009, p. 98.
  7. ^ Cooper 2005, p. 26.
  8. ^ a b c Cooper 2005, p. 27.
  9. ^ Cooper 2005, p. 28.
  10. ^ a b Cooper 2005, p. 29.
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  12. ^ Cooper 2005, p. 31.
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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]