The public school system has always perplexed me. Everyday, America’s school children are either fed misinformation about the world around them or are fed factual information that they’re not mentally prepared to deal with. For instance, seventh grade is when we start to learn American history. We’re taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America and that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, as well as several other complete fabrications, when we’d be just as fine knowing that the Vikings arrived in America long before Christopher Columbus ever did and that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation did nothing more for the slaves than his original idea and putting all blacks on a boat and shipping them back to Africa. On the flip-side of the coin, seventh grade is when we’re told about Anne Frank for the first time. At the age of twelve, non of us were able to grapple the true weight of Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank’s vivid transcription of living in an attic with her family in a fruitless attempt to avoid the horrors of the holocaust. However, Jeff Mangum of Netrual Milk Hotel, for whatever reason, never read the story in his younger years and wasn’t exposed to it until he was very much an adult. After reading it for the first time sometime in the late 90’s, Mangum was floored with the beautiful tragedy of Frank’s tale. His dreams were haunted with visions of the Frank family, often leading him to awake in a cold sweat in the wee hours of the morning. These emotions permeated his songwriting and in 1998 Netraul Milk Hotel released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a pseudo-concept album detailing various emotions of the tale. It was to be Neutral Milk Hotel’s last album and, unknown to Mangum, one of the indie music’s defining albums, inspiring such acts of Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire, and the Dresden Dolls

The albums music is, for the most part, standard instrumentation for indie music. Acoustic guitars, buzz distortion, and various horns are scattered throughout the record, all backing up Mangum’s definitive indie-folk vocals. Often times, the instruments will just strum a droning chord or two as Mangum’s vocals dance melodically around the tonic (“The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two and Three”). Don’t take the word “droning” too seriously though as the album does have it’s upbeat moments. “Holland 1945” may be the most exciting song about the holocaust ever written (sorry, Max Bemis, “Alive with the Glory of Love” will have to accept second place). Even the when the music is is simplified, Mangum’s lyrics hold each song together. On some songs, I consider it an oddly fun game to try and pick out all the references to Anne Frank’s diary in the lyrics (“The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One”) while on others, it seems as if each line is more spine-tingling than the last, evoking goosebumps as Mangum makes the story of Anne Frank seem more real than our seventh grade history teacher ever could (“Oh Comely”). The title track momentarily drops the holocaust theme in favor of sending a message about appreciating youth. Even the albums instrumentals are fantastic pieces, whether they be solemn marches (“The Fool”) or Cloud Cult-esque affairs full of buzz and effects (“untitled”).

It’s no wonder why this album is held in such high esteem. While it is often looked at as nothing more than an album used by indie kids to make themselves seem more intellectual than the average music listener, this record is nothing short of genius. Although, at times, Mangum’s vocals can drift a little too close to a drone (“Communist Daughter”) or a little to close too an annoying yell (“Two-Headed Boy”), for the vast majority of the record, everything is spot on. The world of indie music is anxiously awaiting and hoping for more material from Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel but with a record as beautiful and unique as this one, it I wouldn’t mind if he never put another pen to another sheet of paper. This brilliant work of art will be enough to hold me over until the next Jeff Mangum comes along and sees the true beauty in another work that many of us have cast off. Perhaps Animal Farm will get it’s own album or maybe that’s just my own wishful thinking.

Overall score: Classic

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