Welcome to Kill Your Idols. This is my third year as The Cluster’s entertainment editor, and I’ve never bothered to indulge myself with a regular column before (if you don’t count failed Reviewing Movies I’ve Never Seen, which I co-authored from time to time), and I decided it was high time for one. So let’s just jump right into this. Kill Your Idols is all about classic albums, records that critics and fans hold up as perfect, or nearly perfect. I’ll be listening to these albums and examining them, seeing if they really deserve all the hype they’ve built up. At some point, I will probably slander your favorite record. Sorry.
I’ll be blunt here. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is probably the most over-hyped album of all time. Upon its rerelease in 2005, Pitchfork gave the record its coveted 10.0 rating, while Rolling Stone, composed of the stuffiest and least hip rock critics working in the 21st century, rated the indie darling four and a half stars. Amazon.com’s list of the 100 best indie rock albums places Aeroplane well above Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and Elliot Smith’s Either/Or, rankings that I personally consider to be crimes against humanity. Clearly, though, this is a well-loved album. But it isn’t a good one.
I’m sure someone out there will want to tell me that I just “don’t get” this record. But that’s not true. I “got it” just fine when I was 16. I loved this album back when I first heard it. I thought band leader Jeff Mangum was absolutely brilliant, and I carried In The Aeroplane in the Sea close to my heart for a good five or six years before I finally sat down and thought to myself, “Just what the hell is this Mangum guy going on about, anyway?”
Now, I’m not generally a guy that cares too much about lyrics. I can take or leave them, and unless they’re particularly amazing (or particularly terrible), I tend not to focus so much on what a band says as much as I do on how they play. But I can’t give Aeroplane’s lyrics a pass, if only because fans like to hold Mangum’s incoherent ramblings up as deeply philosophical.
The lyrics are weird and somewhat interesting, to be sure, but ultimately, they’re inscrutable. You can spend days trying to figure out what exactly lines like “Silver speakers that sparkle all day / Made for his lover who’s floating and choking with her hands across her face” are really referring to, but ultimately, Mangum’s lyrics aren’t poems with secret meanings to unlock; they’re strange and off-putting for no real reason. I just don’t think there’s anything there in the end.
Nothing, that is, except a weirdly fetishized portrayal of Anne Frank. Yes, that Anne Frank, the 14 year-old who hid from the Nazis. It’s never exactly made explicit, but the album is peppered with allusions to her life, and Mangum has on many occasions made reference to the emotional impact Frank’s diaries had on him. The Frank themes aren’t particularly odd, until you get to some of Mangum’s more blatantly sexual lines, such as “We would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for” and “semen stains the mountaintops.” It’s…uncomfortable. Now, I am not saying that those lines are actually in reference to a long-dead 14 year old girl. In context, they seem to be describing Mangum’s life, exploring the awkward fumbling of adolescent sexuality. But having these two themes compete with each other is, at the least, extremely off-putting.
But like I said, as uncomfortable as some of those lyrical themes are, lyrics are never the entirety of an album. And musically, Aeroplane has some pretty great moments. “Holland, 1945,” for example, is absolutely brilliant. It’s fast-paced, emotionally gripping, and just an absolute joy to listen to. But I don’t think the rest of the album stands up to that one song. “Oh Comely” and “Ghost” are both good, but they pale in comparison. And plenty of the songs on the album are actually pretty bad.
Take “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. II.” It begins as Mangum sings, “I love you, Jesus Cuh-rhist” in the most grating voice possible. Obviously, this is a intentional. Mangum wants to be grating, possibly in an attempt to quickly drive away people that wouldn’t like the rest of the record. But the fact remains that those two minutes are just terrible to listen to. Plenty of other songs are simply there, never really evolving in any direction.
Ultimately, I don’t think Aeroplane is the worst record. It’s pretty good in a lot of ways. But it’s been canonized as virtually flawless in certain circles, and I just don’t think it deserves that reputation. I certainly don’t think it’s better than many other well-regarded records of the ‘90s such as Radiohead’s OK Computer or The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin. In the end, Aeroplane isn’t too bad of a record, but its status as a masterpiece is, well, questionable at best. Maybe I’m being too harsh on a decent record, but someone has to counterbalance those perfect scores this record received.
Classic or catastrophe? Catastrophe.