There’s an aura of romance, of doomed brilliance, that surrounds Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Looking back and listening to it once more, it’s hard to separate the music from the knowledge that Jeff Mangum was apparently teetering on the edge of what some would call a nervous breakdown and what all would call sudden, life-changing fame. It sounds like a cry for help from inside a haunted closet, even while it hits you like a joyous exaltation – a yawping, yearning ode to beauty and death and fate and not-so-simple existence. It’s a strange experience to say the least, an exercise in Brechtian estrangement that enlists a singing saw, multiple flugelhorns, and whatever the hell a zanzithiphone is in the effort to cut you loose from your moorings, to send you swirling away on the lilting melodies and through the clashing distortion to a cathartic, ecstatic release.
Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that the album is a suite of songs written about Anne Frank and there’s more than a whiff of the auteur about it. It’s intensely and obviously personal, from the surreal lyrics to the dense orchestration to Mangum’s emotive, nasal whine, and the devotion it inspires is nothing short of religious. For the Church of Mangum is built on passion, on doomed endeavors, on writing love songs to a girl who died in 1945, on blending commercial hooks with a lo-fi rejection of overt commercialism, on the realization that this man is pouring his everything (maybe even his sanity) into this one message to the universe. It’s so intense that at the end of “Oh Comely” – an eight-minute force of nature that stops to reflect on the mass grave in which Frank is buried before the warning, “Know all your enemies. We know who our enemies are,” knocks on your consciousness and occasionally reduces me to tears – someone in the faint distance of the studio cries out “Holy Shit!” in awe of the performance, the testimonial they have just witnessed.
Playing it as I was driving down Route 7, through the Green Mountains of Vermont and along side the glitter of Lake Champlain, I found myself thinking of how perfectly suited the songs on this album are to being on a Wes Anderson soundtrack. Speaking of estrangement and anger, sweetness and love, these songs swing from atonal distortion to melodic rapture with all the intensity and oddity of one of Anderson’s off-beat protagonists, and the album would certainly fit in to a space somewhere between The Kinks, Bowie, and Benjamin Britten in Anderson’s sonic catalogue. If you’re as willing to mix media in your mind as I am, it’s not much of a leap to imagine Max Fischer of Rushmore Academy writing just such an album to his own inaccessible muse Ms. Cross in between penning heavily plagiarized high-school-theater masterpieces. He’s precisely the kind of guy who would get behind a fundamentally doomed endeavor (like an unlicensed school aquarium or The Calligraphy Club or falling in love with Anne Frank), and I think it’s this misguided idealism that speaks to me in both of these works.
Add to that the sense that Anderson is as in control of every element of his movies (even when, if not especially when, they seem on the verge of falling apart) as Mangum is in control of this album, and you’ve got a match made in synesthetic heaven.