Longtime hermit, certified genius-oddball, and Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum is getting the band back together for a paltry smattering of tour dates this summer. In honor of the wonderful news, we've put together a list of the three best and three worst lines from NMH's magnum opus, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album that started off pretty much perfect and has only improved with age.
BEST: "I will spit until I learn how to speak." -- "King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three"
In a record loaded with surreal abstractions, idiosyncratic poetics, and downright enigmatic and associative turns of phrase, it's the immediacy here that works so well: This is the type of line that'd make a good T-shirt or tattoo or would do well as one of those whatever the things you pin to Pinterest are called. It's a mantra, you might argue, for self-expression and underscores not only Mangum's superhuman ability for it, but his lovely voice as well.
WORST: "Semen stains the mountaintops. -- "Communist Daughter"
When I bought this record in 1999, I was still in high school and still wildly insistent that all my friends listen to the records I loved. One such friend -- more into the Dead Kennedys and Anti-Flag than any silly acoustic thing I dug -- agreed to listen to Aeroplane.
The most admiration he could muster was for this one line, and, begrudgingly, I nodded my head in fierce agreement. But I've always found it clunky and, I dunno, too easy for a guy who can come up with something like, "She will feed you tomatoes and radio wire," or who can make me reach behind myself to feel the notches in my own spine.
BEST: "I love you, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, I love you, yes I do." -- "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three"
You have to remember, this record came out in 1998. The catchier stuff from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was still getting college radio airplay and Odelay was a mere two years old; debilitating ironic self-distance and cynicism were tacit in the Chuck-Taylors-and-ill-advised-facial-hair crowd.
So a line declaring, in no uncertain terms, a love for, you know, Him, was maybe the boldest move on a record full of them. Even for those of us who identify as unrepentant atheists, the line -- so naked, so sincere, so true -- still gives chills.
WORST: "I know that she will live forever, all goes on and on and on." -- "Ghost"
All the enigma and power reserved for Frank's immortality are thrown out when describing this unnamed girl who fell from the sky in New York City -- it's a line that'd be fine by any other standards. But in the context of a perfect record like Aeroplane, it has the feel of Mangum frustratingly tacking a thesis statement onto a record that doesn't really need one.
BEST: "Now she's a little boy in Spain / playing pianos filled with flames." -- "Holland, 1945"
Let's face it: "Holland, 1945" is a barn-burner. It's the song you recommend to your friends who aren't familiar with the record, and it's the only Aeroplane track you can actually put on at a party without getting sideways glances.
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If you know the song, you know it's about (or at least "indebted to," if we must be cryptic about it) Anne Frank, and for me, the song always comes alive here -- it moves from history report to capital-A Art. Surreal, yes, and fucking triumphant, and Frank's timelessness and agelessness shines through. It's the point where you get out of the chair, turn it louder, and just move to it. She's immortal now, it's okay, they can't hurt her.
WORST: "The world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves left beneath Christmas trees in the snow." -- "Two-Headed Boy"
Not only does the long E sound get a little too sing-song-y in a record that rarely resorts to that sort of easy assonance, the line seems to be Mangum at his most willfully oblique, and not in a way bears a revelation after multiple revisits. I've been listening to this record for a decade-and-a-half, for pity's sake, and the line still confounds me. What is he getting at here? If you can make sense of this one, put it in the comments, and I'll gladly revise my position.
- Jeff Mangum plays Crescent Ballroom: "Everyone sang along--it's like church, we were told."