I remember the first time I ever heard “Holland, 1945” in high school. I also remember falling in love with it instantly. I had never heard something like it at that point in time, something so defiantly and deliberately lo-fi (subject matter aside, it would fit more at home on On Avery Island than it does here). It’s not that the song is about—or starts with, at least—Anne Frank, something that I understood almost immediately (“they buried her alive / One evening, 1945 / With just her sister at her side / And only weeks before the guns / All came and rained on everyone”), because I hated The Diary of a Young Girl. I appreciate(d) it, of course, as historical proof to just what humankind is capable of, but I felt jaded having been forced to read it in grade 7 English class (instead of history), alongside actual and rightful literary classics (Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird). Moreover, pre-puberty me was a little grossed out by a girl learning what her body was for. I’m no longer grossed out by that fact, but I am grossed out by the publishers who forced that information into the book, publicizing a very private matter, even despite Otto Frank’s best wishes. I remember playing it for a friend, who responded by laughing as soon as the noise began, and laughed more when Jeff began singing. Those sounds hurt me then, and still haunt me a little now.
“Holland, 1945” makes a good case of the strengths of the album—in case you’re an insensitive or insensible human being—because Jeff Magnum (spelling mistake intentional because he was one letter switch away from being on some James Bond level business) lays them all out in front of him for the world to see. His lyrics and his vocal style make a solid case that he is one of the best singer/songwriters to come out of the 90’s, that you can’t help but feel angry to the fact that there haven’t been anything new from Neutral Milk Hotel since. It’s the way he jumps between emotions, how he starts with the death in Anne Frank and moves to her reincarnation as “A little boy in Spain” and ends that verse on a positive note (“All sing to say my dream has come”). It’s how he injects a life-affirming quality into the chorus, rallying us together in its melody of which words he stresses, “the life we used to love / Just to keep ourselves / At least enough to carry on.” It’s how he decides to confine himself to couplets, and still makes them sad without being maudlin (a feat which is supremely impressive), especially in the song’s final verse, “Indentions in the sheets / Where [your brothers’] bodies once moved but don’t move anymore” to “And it’s so sad to see the world agree / That they’d rather see their faces fill with flies / All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes” and launching upwards once again at the final word, again, rallying us together as if to scream “fuck dying” despite the knowledge that we will one day. Like Thomasina’s answer to death in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, “Phooey to Death.”
And because Jeff Magnum sings them the way he does, despite the fact that some of these songs have rather basic arrangements (the title track uses every chord every guitar owner who doesn’t know how to play guitar knows how to form, I’m talking some G-Em-C-D stuff for the verse and a rearrangement of them for the chorus), it’s practically impossible to replicate with the same level of emotion, such that there are no bad songs on the album. And even if the arrangements are ever basic, you have to realize that Neutral Milk Hotel isn’t all Jeff Magnum, but rather a band effort, and they remind us that; see the transition between the two parts of “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three” or what sounds like they could be recorded dolphins at the 2:30 mark of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
One (of the many, many, many) differences between In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and its forgotten brother, On Avery Island is that that one ended with Jeff Magnum’s vision of death (“Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye”). This one, on the other hand, begins with its most death-obsessed, see its (glorious) final line, “dad would dream of all the different ways to die / Each one a little more than he could dare to try,” holding the last note as long as he can and launching back over and over in perhaps the album’s best moment. Sure, it uses a standard chord progression (I-V-IV, baby), but attention to the words. I’m convinced that “As we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for / And this is the room / One afternoon I knew I could love you / And from above you how I sank into your soul / Into that secret place where no one dares to go” easily overtakes “I remember when I moved in you and the holy dark was moving too / And every breath we drew was Hallelujah” for best lyrics about sex in a nonsexual song. And I don’t even need a flugelhorn, but I’m glad the band brings one in.
And the lyrics get brighter (relatively speaking) from there. I had originally thought that the only thing “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three” shared with part one was its name, and they were linked only by the segue between them, but now that I think about it, Jeff Magnum’s death-defying cry (like he had just realized how good life was) that opens the track is the perfect answer to the suicidal thoughts that ended the first track and lingered in the air, unanswered. The title track continues this movement, basically as close to a straight-forward love song as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea ever gets, “What a beautiful face / I have found in this place / That is circling all round the sun,” even if I’m sure it’s still about the Holocaust (“Anna’s ghost all around” and I’m sure the “How I would push my fingers through / Your mouth to make those muscles move” lines is in reference to an old-fashioned way of pacifying babies, in this case while hiding from the Nazis). The last four lines are profoundly moving, “And when we meet on a cloud / I’ll be laughing out loud / I’ll be laughing with everyone I see / Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” Listen how short instrumental “The Fool” is like a funeral procession while “Untitled,” on the other end of the album, is like a march towards life. And yeah, “Ghost” might be about a girl who commits suicide (“A girl fell from the sky / From the top of a burning apartment building / Fourteen stories high”) and another “casual” reference to Anne Frank (“she was born in a bottle rocket, 1929”), but there’s a cathartic quality to it when Jeff Magnum tells us with unquestionable authority that these girls “will live forever” and “won’t ever die,” and “dee”‘s along, happily, to that information.
The album’s current standing, and how most girls will likely recognize “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” if you start strumming it on a guitar in an effort to impress her has nothing to do with the fact that this cover would spark fueled debates of what the fuck that thing is. Likewise, it has nothing to do with the fact that “semen stains the mountaintops” has went straight from the state of a lyric to that of a meme over on the music board of 4chan, skipping the mantra middleman like it were a solid sublimating to gas. It has a little to do with the fact that “I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST” appears in its all-capital, verbatim glory in listen-alongs in the same place, even though the people who type it are probably defiantly and definitely proud-to-be atheists. Like theatre of the absurd—and make no mistake, some of this music seems to be absurd upon cursory listen, the meme-worthy lyrics or the way Jeff Magnum yells them out (why my friend reacted the way he did)—In the Aeroplane Over the Sea understands that life is absurd; we struggle through it—all of us. But it also understands, more than any other album, that there’s more to life than just struggling through it.