Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

I’ve been avoiding this assignment for weeks. Somewhere in this mix of postponement is the reverent caution emitted by what the more spiritually confident might call “the sacred,” a power that can render even the most sacrilegious among us a John of Silence. Can zealous speech do anything other than betray the object of its devotion?

Comparatively speaking, 1998 was a rather dead time to be alive. In the three quarters of a century that American youth has lived its life through the soundtrack of popular music and masqueraded in the styles that go with it, never has a subculture had so little affect as indie rock. Neither dramatically decadent nor morbid, indie rockers were, by and large, simply muted and flat, unmovable. There was resistance in this reticence, a savvy After-Adorno suspicion of the saccharine earnestness of stadium rock and the illusory sentiment conjured in stagecraft’s glare. That is to say that like all identities, indie rock was an identity of opposition. And yet, its resentment suffered sorely from the lack of a suitable object. These were white kids, disproportionately. Reagan was gone, the Cold War was over, and the economy was strong. Without anything to get too worked up over, indie rockers adopted the posture of satisfied bemusement, and the conviction, above all else, to not be fooled again. Read in its own terms (which were essentially those of historical materialism) the languid understatement of indie rock makes all sorts of sense. And yet, the oddity must be stressed: here was a musical subculture whose music knew no dance.

Indie rock had its zealots: earnest makers of sound and taste who circulated in back-to-culture networks of artistic production and appreciation. Based in Denver with a satellite on the hallowed ground of Athens, Georgia, the Elephant 6 collective was one such clique. Contrary to the dominant mood, these people were in no way cool. Perhaps none was less so than Neutral Milk Hotel’s romantic genius of a front man, Jeff Mangum. For those who knew him—and only too soon, those who didn’t—Mangum was a tamer of inspiration, a channeler of visions, an oracle.

A tentative sidebar on the spiritual: even and especially for those hungry American souls that can remember a time before when, rifling one day through the attic, they stumbled upon the faded telegraph report bearing the unfortunate news that God was dead, the irruption that Mircea Eliade dubbed hierophany retains an antecedence in experience. In nature, in love, and perhaps most frequently, in the intimate solitude of recorded music, a moment in time has the capacity to explode with exuberance, devastation, or in a wash of meaningfulness without name. And as the silly theory goes, in the wake of such explosions, grooves of significance are cut in the score of time. And so, for periods of days or weeks of even years before repetition goes stale and our attention is pulled in the direction of further novelty, a path through the woods becomes a discipline, pillow talk becomes a catechism, and an album becomes a liturgy to be hollered at the top of our lungs as the interstate flies by.

So it has been for many with the revelation pressed in plastic as Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. That those first undone by the album were predominantly disaffected ironists calls to mind midrashic meditations over the characterization in Genesis of Noah as a righteous man in his generation. What work, the rabbis ask, does the temporal qualifier—in his generation—perform? Does it accentuate or mitigate the degree of Noah’s righteousness? The same might be asked of Aeroplane. It might well be the case that 1969 saw the release of ten records with such savage spirituality and that my testimony is merely the travelogue of a rationalist blinded by only the dim light of the cave’s mouth. Or, perhaps, the fact that this force of an album emerged from such a wasteland is precisely what makes it a reasonable bet that the children of my children’s children will know it to some degree.

Here, where I strain to describe the album so as to make it available to the uninitiated reader is where things can only go awry. Nevertheless, let me try and fail to share with you something awesome.

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