In 1998 in the town of Athens, Georgia, singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum with his band Neutral Milk Hotel released a forty-minute album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea, that—in addition to receiving both critical and popular acclaim and becoming a best-selling, must-have record in indie music circles for the years to come—would ultimately cripple his music career, the loudly trumpeted praise shying him into humble reclusion. The eleven tracks on the record, which include two instrumentals (one of them untitled), flow together, the final notes of one song spilling into the beginning of the next until the album finally ends with the sound of Mangum setting down his guitar and walking away. Combining Mangum’s raw, bellowing, heart-rending vocals, his acoustic guitar, and an array of instruments spanning many eras of time—from the flugelhorn to the zanzithophone, the electric guitar to the singing saw—the album is a kaleidoscopic treatise on love, sex, life, death, suffering, and everything in between, proposing a vision of spirituality in which the boundaries between the sacred and the real and between life and the afterlife are removed.
Though in one song Mangum sings “I will shout until they know what I mean,” the many fans and critics of In the Aeroplane over the Sea have never formed a consensus about the precise meaning of Mangum’s cryptic lyrics, despite all of his shouting and singing. Until access can be granted to the deepest innerworkings of Mangum’s mind, such unanimous understanding about the eleven songs will perhaps never be reached, since the lyrics—personal yet surreal, imagistic and emotional yet obscure—seem to overpower the givens of time, space, logic, and personal identity as in a delirious fever dream, piling on top of each other in a bizarre twist of wordplay. External comments by Mangum about the meaning of the album have been sparse, and any explanations he has attempted to provide have been somewhat enigmatic; even after singing that he proposes to shout until he is understood, he states, “I mean the marriage of a dead dog sing[ing],” a statement that is ironic because it is seemingly a mere non-sequitur, probably revealing nothing about the album except for an important yet seemingly strange visual: something that is dead yet is also able to sing.
One fact, however, remains extremely clear throughout the album and in external interviews: Mangum sincerely means what he sings, and the lyrics have profound meaning to him. By extension and through the careful acquirement of the album’s images and sounds, which serve as emotional stimulators like those in a Rorschach test, the album is capable of stringing together just the right elements to provoke a personal meaning from the listener, though this meaning may be different for everyone. This meaning is spiritual in nature, though it defies any traditional religious system. Through the recurrence of four characters—each of them faced with some form of personal suffering—Mangum illuminates a path toward salvation and immortality that can be achieved through complete love and through a surprising realization about God.
The album begins with a two-minute song, “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One,” a nostalgic journey into the narrator’s childhood told in the second person and therefore universalized and personalized for the listener. In this childhood, Mangum makes a startling contrast between beautiful, playful descriptions and stark, violent accounts of domestic tension:
When you were young, you were the King of Carrot Flowers,
And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees
In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet.
And your mom would stick a fork right into Daddy’s shoulder,
And Dad would throw the garbage all across the floor,
As we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for.
Such contrast is only maintainable through the eyes of a child, a perspective in which details as safe and beautiful as a field of white carrot flowers or holy rattlesnakes that fall from trees (Mangum is perhaps referring to gnarled sticks or to the black seedpods of trees, which can seem to resemble snake skins) are placed side by side with the devastating details of alcoholism and violent rage, without any change in vocal inflection. Mangum proposes here and throughout the album that suffering, depression, and spiritual ugliness are concepts unable to be grasped by children, whose unadulterated innocence and boundless supply of imagination can turn even the most horrific events into beautiful dreams.
Not surprisingly, one of the album’s most prominent characters—appearing in many forms—is Anne Frank, a teenage girl who hid in an attic in Holland with her family throughout World War II before finally being captured and sent to her death in a Nazi concentration camp. Mangum has stated in interviews that reading Anne Frank’s diary for the first time, an experience that deeply moved him, was a major inspiration for much of the record. Haunted by dreams about the girl, Mangum believed that she was his true love, despite having died fifty years before he became aware of her existence. His awareness that such profound suffering could be coupled with such resiliency, purity, and innocence and his desire to believe that love could conquer even death helped him to write In the Aeroplane over the Sea.
Frank makes her first appearance in the third, titular track of the album:
And one day we will die and our ashes will fly
From the aeroplane over the sea,
But for now we are young, let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see—
Love to be in the arms of all I’m keeping here with me—
Anna’s ghost all around,
Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me, soft and sweet,
How the notes all bend and reach above the trees.
“In the Aeroplane over the Sea” strengthens the idea that childhood is an innocent, heavenly experience, unsullied by death and evil. Mangum acknowledges that physical death will one day come (“our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea”), but he dismisses this fact so that he can “count every beautiful thing we can see,” insisting that life, overall, is beautiful despite its darker aspects. Life is fleeting, yet worth holding onto; it is a “beautiful dream that could flash on the screen in the blink of an eye and be gone,” and the world is a place full of beautiful faces.
Anne Frank again appears, unnamed, in “Holland, 1945”:
The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes,
But then they buried her alive,
One evening, 1945,
With just her sister at her side,
And only weeks before the guns
All came and rained on everyone.
Very suitably, she is the only love in Mangum’s life, for she is the heroine of In the Aeroplane over the Sea, serving as the prime example of the philosophy of love that Mangum proposes. Heartfelt lines in her diary, such as “I keep my ideals because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are truly good at heart” and “Think of all the beauty that is still left in and around you and be happy” are aptly reflected in Mangum’s lyrics. In “Ghost,” Mangum gives her an angelic, supernatural description, explaining that because of her bountiful spirit, she is invincible to death and suffering:
And she was born in a bottle rocket, 1929
With wings that ring around a socket right between her spine,
All drenched in milk and holy water pouring from the sky.
I know that she will live forever; she won’t ever die.
She goes, and now she knows she’ll never be afraid.
This claim to Anne Frank’s invincibility, however, is contrasted with a somber confession in “Oh Comely,” an eight-minute-long, slow-paced, acoustic epic where with a slow, mournful tone he explains that she eventually was killed. He states, “And I know they buried her body with others, / Her sister and mother and five hundred families.” This frightened admission that the Holocaust did triumph over her life, however, seems not to contradict the fact that “she won’t ever die.” It instead seems to evidence only that the darkness of the world, which comes with age, has begun to taint Mangum and his own happiness, bringing him closer to an inevitable spiritual death. This distinction is important; though Frank has died a physical death, she indeed remains alive spiritually. Others may die spiritual deaths prior to their physical deaths, and this spiritual death is marked by depression, evil, and an inability to see beauty.
Spiritual death comes only when innocence becomes tarnished, as evidenced by the first dark turn in the lyrics that begins in “In the Aeroplane over the Sea,” accompanied by an eerie singing saw:
But now we keep where we don’t know;
All secrets sleep in winter clothes
With one you loved so long ago,
Now you don’t even know his name.
Though the precise meaning of these details is intangible, the lines—with the aide of a sad inflection of tone and chord progression—evoke several tainted emotions and expressions: confusion, isolation, secrecy, coldness, loss of love, and loss of memory. The oppression of spiritual death on the mind is most visible in “Oh Comely,” which begins with someone losing his breath while “chasing the only meaningful memory [he] thought [he] had left.” For the comely character being addressed in this song, it is clear that life “isn’t as pretty as you’d like to guess.” Life after spiritual death is instead “bristling and ugly,” and though a comforting friend may be able to provide some support, “there isn’t such one friend that you could find here.” Instead, all of the people in the world seem to be “enem[ies]” who need be “crush[ed] . . . with everything I own.” Though once there was a lover who “believed in” him, now there is nobody and he is alone; he awaits only physical death as a passageway to renewal, the only hope available to someone who has died spiritually, which explains why the father in “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One” “dreams of all the different ways to die, / Each one a little more than he could dare to try” instead of dreaming about colorful fields like his son does.
In addition to Anne Frank, Mangum also claims to have been inspired by the suicide of a friend’s brother. This brother, who serves as an example of spiritual death as opposed to Frank’s spiritual life, also makes several appearances on the album, most notably in “Holland, 1945”:
And now we ride the circus wheel
With your dark brother wrapped in white. . . .
The earth looks better from a star
That’s right above from where you are.
He didn’t mean to make you cry,
With sparks that ring and bullets fly,
On empty rings around your heart,
The world just screams and falls apart.
When the “world … falls apart,” nothing remains for some people but physical death. Fortunately, Mangum seems to believe that physical death is capable of restoring spiritual life. There is no mention of a Hell or eternal torment in the lyrics of In the Aeroplane over the Sea; even suicides are given a second chance to see the beauty of living, as seen by the brother who now “rides a comet’s flame” where “the earth looks better.” In “Two Headed Boy, Pt. Two,” Jeff Mangum laments the loss of the brother, but only because it seems to temporarily separate him from someone he loves:
Brother, see, we are one and the same,
And you left with your head filled with flames,
And you watched as your brains
Fell out through your teeth;
Push the pieces in place,
Make your smile sweet to see.
Don’t you take this away;
I’m still wanting my face on your cheek.
Nevertheless, Mangum refuses to allow death to triumph. Referring either to the brother or to Anne Frank or to anyone else who has died, he states in “Two Headed Boy, Pt. Two,” “In my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying, / As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet. / Rings of flowers round your eyes, and I love you for the rest of your life.”
Physical death takes many forms on In the Aeroplane over the Sea, including reincarnation, entry into an afterlife, and passing into a parallel universe only loosely separated from this one yet still able to be reached through dreams and memories. In all forms, death is a return to innocence. Life, then, is a cycle from youthful, naïve purity to corruption and then back to a more knowledgeable purity that comes with death, though to say that the purity of a child who is able to see the beauty within all things is ignorant and naïve is perhaps a misstatement, since Mangum seems to believe that all things indeed are beautiful and an adult’s inability to see this does not come from gradual awareness of true ugliness but from gradual separation from true beauty.
In “Oh Comely,” Mangum illustrates this concept with a depiction of two conjoined twins freezing to death in a ditch:
Goldaline, my dear, we will fold and freeze together.
Far away from here, there is sun and spring and green forever,
But now we move to feel for ourselves inside some stranger’s stomach;
Place your body here, let your skin begin to blend itself with mine.
In this scene, the Siamese twins are surrounded by the apparently harsh cruelty of the world that is causing them to freeze to death; however, their love for each other prevails. Even in death, they have each other, and they know that soon, once they are reincarnated together in the womb of a new mother, there will once again be sun and warmth. Mangum cites reincarnation throughout his record, including in “Holland, 1945,” where he states that Anne Frank is now “a boy in Spain / playing pianos filled with flames.” The two instrumental tracks, when considered in comparison with each other and also in regard to their placement on the album, also musically suggest reincarnation. The first instrumental track, “The Fool,” the fifth cut on the record, follows the mournful, Islamic-style vocals at the end of “Two-Headed Boy” and erupts into the dirge-like procession of a horn ensemble playing a slow, waltzing march. This funereal song suggests a physical death, but life comes careening back to earth in the second, untitled instrumental song, the tenth track on the album. With bagpipes, upbeat drums, zanzithophone, and various other exuberant instruments accompanying a sighing choir, this tune suggests a rebirth and a celebration of life, with each note reaching happier heights.
In other instances, Mangum believes in afterlives that do not involve reincarnation, though all the forms of death that he recounts have reformative and transformative powers. After an ominous musical bridge in “In the Aeroplane over the Sea,” Mangum refers to a traditional, Heaven-like realm:
And when we meet on a cloud,
I’ll be laughing out loud,
I’ll be laughing with everyone I see.
Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.
In other lines, spirits return to earth as ghosts, able to unite with their lovers through dreams and through actual, spiritual unification, as in “Ghost,” where Mangum states, “Ghost, I know you live within me, / Feel as you fly in thunderclouds above the city.”
As is obvious by his contradictions, Mangum does not claim to know exactly what happens after death. What he does know and believe is that death is not the end. He also proposes that the fundamental goal in life and in death—two sides of the same coin—should be to realize the ultimate beauty that composes the essence of everything. In the liner notes, which suitably take the form of one very long, free flowing, run-on sentence, Mangum refers to “the belief that all things seem to contain a white light within them that … [is] eternal.” Though most people may see the world as divided into a dichotomy between beautiful, “good” things and ugly, “bad” things, such a perspective is faulty in Mangum’s philosophy. This false dichotomy can lead only to depression and spiritual death, as more and more things seem to appear ugly. The happy person, then—the person who can achieve spiritual immortality—is the person who realizes that all things and people are interwoven together to form the same fabric of the universe. Placing carrot flowers, a drunken mother, holy rattlesnakes, and a suicidal father all in the same observation, then, is not a sight seeped in contrast but rather an account of the many possible things that can occur in the world, much like the plenitude principle which can be metaphorically explained by the fact that the individual notes of instruments—though ugly when heard alone—form beauty when necessarily combined in a symphony.
The “Two-Headed Boy,” another recurring character in the album, is the protagonist with which most of the listening audience will be most able to identify. His two heads suggest the split in his personality, a schism formed by two contrasting impulses: the desire to follow Mangum’s philosophy of “beauty in all things” and the overwhelming force that commands him to see the polarized world—beautiful and ugly—as most people see it. He is not flawless like Anne Frank, who was insistent upon universal beauty despite the oppressing ugliness of the Holocaust. Nor is he unsalvageable like the father in “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One,” who prays only for death and destruction. The Two-Headed Boy is precariously poised between two divergent paths. He can either choose eternal life and beauty, or he can follow the natural path towards death.
When Mangum first presents the Two-Headed Boy in the song named after him, he is in a dangerous position:
All floating in glass,
The sun, it has passed
Now it’s blacker than black.
It seems as though he is on the path toward despair. In the next stanza, however, he is wearing “Sunday shoes” and dancing “around the room to accordion keys / With the needle that sings in [his] heart.” The needle of a record player fills his heart with music, and the Two-Headed Boy rises out of the black darkness into temporary happiness. He happily builds a home-made radio to give to his lover, a radio with “silver speakers that sparkle all day,” but—as Mangum has suggested in external interviews—the lover dislikes the radio and breaks it. She is “choking with her hands across her face.” This disastrous turn of events presents a new challenge for the Two-Headed Boy; in the face of misfortune, he may return to the darkness. The narrator, however, advises:
There’s no reason to grieve.
The world that you need
Is wrapped in gold, silver sleeves
Left beneath Christmas trees in the snow.
The Two-Headed Boy needs never fall completely into despair, since redemption is not found in the attentions of one individual but in the beautiful details of the world. These details can sometimes seem hidden and concealed like wrapped-up Christmas presents, yet they are deeply satisfying and rewarding when uncovered. In “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two,” the brother who has committed suicide seeks to find redemption through uncovering the secret beauty of the world. The brother is “in a struggle to find secret songs that you keep / Wrapped in boxes so tight / Sounding only at night as you sleep.” Sometimes it takes the imagination of dreams to reveal the true beauty of the world, yet it lurks at all times, an “eternal white light” under the surface of all things.
With the help of the narrator’s advice, the Two-Headed Boy chooses the path toward life, beauty, and happiness. His decision to follow in the loving footsteps of Anne Frank helps to influence the two other recurring characters of the album: the dead brother, who after death longs to make his “smile sweet to see” by finding the “secret songs” of the world’s beauty, and the suicidal father. The Two-Headed Boy addresses the father in “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two”:
Daddy, please, hear this song that I sing:
In your heart there’s a spark that just screams
For a lover to bring a child to your chest
That could lay as you sleep
And love all you have left.
Like many people on the album and in real life, the father needs to know that he is loved in order to be reassured of his happiness. Loneliness is a void he believes he needs to fill in order to be happy, and he attempts to fill this void through various unsatisfying sexual encounters throughout the album. In “Oh Comely” he makes “fetuses / With flesh licking ladies” while his depressive wife sleeps in the trailer home. In “Communist Daughter,” a similar character whose mind is obsessed with visions of “semen stains” on “mountain tops,” desires to experience “something warm and moving … [and] soothing” in order to prove “that she must still exist.”
Even the Two-Headed Boy at first believes he needs the sexual affection of his lover in order to feel fulfilled. He states, “In the dark we will take off our clothes / And they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine.” The sex, of course, occurs in the dark, where it is connected to the “blacker than black” state of despair that the Two-Headed Boy sometimes enters. The “fingers … through the notches in your spine” are a poor substitute for the wings that Mangum describes sprouting from the spine of Anne Frank. Overall, Mangum concludes, sex is a poor substitute for true happiness. Since the love of another depends on external, uncontrollable factors, it is ultimately unreliable. Happiness can only come from within, through a perspective and through moods and ideas over which the viewer has complete control. In the concluding lines of the album, Mangum explains:
Two-headed boy, she is all you could need;
She will feed you tomatoes and radio wire
And retire to sheets safe and clean,
But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.
Love between two people can be beautiful, full of gifts and security, but it may ultimately end in separation, either through cases such as divorce or even through death. This physical separation may seem like a forced cessation of love, yet Mangum has claimed throughout the album that love is the ultimate means of salvation. How, then, can one reach salvation through love if love sometimes is forced to end?
To solve this riddle, Mangum forces the listener to consider two facts. The first is the “theme of endless endless” that he refers to in the liner notes. All things “go on and on and on,” and everything is connected. Everything is one. A person commits a fallacy when he or she chooses to love one thing or one person while hating others, since everything is all part of the fluid substance of the universe. Loneliness, therefore, is a mistaken belief, since everyone is always connected and no one is ever “alone.” The second fact is interrelated to the first one: since everything is always interconnected, then nothing truly dies. Spiritual and physical deaths occur, but they eventually result in regeneration. A death is just a moment when a person “break[s],” and in this state the person must “wait for [his or her] miracle.” The miracle is salvation, and salvation is the rewarding realization that everything on earth is part of a beautiful, glorious, “holy spectacle.” Mangum exclaims toward the end of the album, “God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.” The universe—or earth, specifically—is God, and all people and things are parts of and within God.
Since the universe is God, then Mangum is not concerned with “justifying the ways of God to man,” per se, but with justifying the ways of men to themselves. Suffering is not an externally imposed punishment but a self-inflicted disorder; depression comes when people fail to see the beauty all around and within them. The sacred canopy is imbued within all things; all things are both sacred and secular. The temporary love for people or things is rewarding, but true salvation and happiness comes from complete and total love and devotion to all things—in other words, love of the pantheistic God.