The 33 1/3 Odyssey: In Jeff’s Aeroplane, Over His Sea

33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each book focusing on a single album. This is the seventh installment of one reader’s quest to read all 55 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!

Part 9 of 55: In the Aeroplane Over The Sea by Kim Cooper (#29 in the series)

There’s a good chunk of people out there who wonder what all the fuss is about when it comes to this album. Doesn’t sound so unique, right? Lo-fi singer/guitarist, psychedelic lyrics chock full of historical references (Anne Frank?), a brass section coming in unexpectedly… believe it or not, it isn’t all that uncommon. But what listeners might be forgetting — or simply don’t realize — is that in ’97, within the increasingly rule-bound confines of indie rock, this band did it first. Neutral Milk Hotel didn’t have a template; they made the template. I hear N.M.H. in the music of the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire, two well known examples (both of which author Kim Cooper mentions in her book.) The list is much longer.

I was hesitant to even crack this book. The album it covers has a mysterious, timeless feel; would too much information dull that, or rather, bring the album too much into focus? Bandleader and songwriter Jeff Mangum pulled the plug on the band after this record, even as his audience was growing steadily. He’s remained largely out of the public eye since, playing music with friends but showing no desire to continue with Neutral Milk Hotel or even to cash in on this album’s ten-year anniversary (something widely noted recently) with what would surely be a lucrative reunion tour (Lollapalooza, anyone?)

“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” 40 Watt Club, Athens, GA 10/14/97

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea comes from a time when DIY had a different meaning. The “D” aspect was much tougher, much more individualized. It was pre-ProTools in every bedroom studio, and pre-internet culture (although not pre-internet itself.) Bands didn’t email new songs to hundreds of blogs with a click of a mouse; it was an era of home-made cassettes and xeroxed artwork, as in the mid-90’s CDs were common but still a lot more expensive to produce. We aren’t talking about the dark ages here, but since then there’s been a huge shift in how people make music, and how they pass it around. Aeroplane seems to be of an earlier time, when bands in smaller cities incubated in a less media-saturated climate. There was less temptation to please by aping whatever Pitchfork was fawning over that week. Without immediate access to that info, the reflexive desire to copy something successful was kept at bay.

Of course, none of this would mean anything if the album wasn’t great, and it is. Mangum’s strained voice and lyrical gift is at the center of it all; even under layers of psychedelia, he seems to be laying it all out there. Kicking off a song with “I love you, Jesus Christ”? Dang, in the indie-rock world, that’s a bit risky. But it’s a risk he took, and it draws you in. If he’s not planning on hiding behind irony and wryness, he deserves a listen. And it only gets more rewarding.

Tellingly, this book — which chronicles not only the making of the album but also gives a history of the Elephant 6 collective for context — has one voice missing within its oral history, and that’s Mangum’s. Shrewdness, or just didn’t feel like talking? We’ll never know. I did ask author Kim Cooper about this, and she was kind enough to reply:

Kim, do you think not having any direct quotes from Jeff adds to his “mystique”?

I imagine there is a sort of shadow figure created in the center of the book; all these people talking about one person who only appears in the memories of others. There are certainly plenty of places where someone can find a record of Jeff speaking, but in this book, where I was doing all the interviews myself and not using existing ones, Jeff simply chose not to be one of the voices. If that adds to his mystique, so be it.

You thank him in the intro and mention he’s doing well, which is nice. It’d be a drag if he got painted as indie rock’s Syd Barrett if that’s far from the truth. I take it he’s cool with the book and let it be known all should speak freely for it?

Before beginning work on the book, I spoke with Jeff and let him know who I was and what my intentions were when writing about his life and his friends. Had he been vehemently against my doing the book as an oral history and as an intimate study of the creation of Aeroplane, I would probably have changed my focus and written a different book
about the album. But happily, he seemed cool with it. And since you mention it, I did notice that more people returned my emails after I spoke with Jeff than before…

Do you think the album really *is* as unique as that ever-growing mythology around it would indicate? Or am I nitpicking by even trying to separate the two?

Absolutely it is. Any work of art that comes so much out of one person’s dreams, their reading, their imagination is entirely unique. There might be other records that are as distinctly of their own world, but there’s nothing else like Aeroplane, despite all the subsequent records that it has influenced.

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