Introducing Defector Music Club, With Neutral Milk Hotel’s Magnum Opus At 25
3:29 PM EST on March 3, 2023
Welcome to the first edition of the Defector Music Club, where a number of our writers will get together to dish about an album and share our favorite new music. For the inaugural edition, Israel Daramola, Luis Paez-Pumar, Giri Nathan, Lauren Theisen, and Patrick Redford shared their thoughts on Neutral Milk Hotel's classic record In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, as it celebrated its 25th anniversary in February. We talked about the album, how we discovered it and shared our feelings about childhood. There was also, well, a whole lot of semen chat. Afterward, we recommended some of the best music we heard in February.
Defector Listens To An Album: Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Israel Daramola: To start things off, what was your prior relationship to this album? Does it come with any associations for you personally?
Lauren Theisen: This album is as familiar to me as Abbey Road. To be honest, I kind of cringed when it was picked for this, because I was so completely into it in high school that I don’t really love going back to it now. I heard the title track on satellite radio while being driven to school when I was probably, like, 14, and it was just one of those What is this? moments. I think I ended up getting the proper CD version at a shop in Dearborn, instead of one that a friend burned for me. But high school coincided with Jeff Mangum touring again (I’ve never seen him) and famous people like Aubrey Plaza and Stephen Colbert referencing NMH, so Aeroplane became a “cool album” among my friends—something to show off when we had someone to impress. Eventually, it became part of the canon, and I got tired of it and moved on to On Avery Island. I do have it as part of my little-used vinyl collection, though. I had a stressed-out Sunday at some point in the last few years where I lit candles and put it on.
Patrick Redford: I have loved this album for a long time, since the first time I listened to it as a soft-hearted 19-year-old, the sort of moron who was ready to both read way too much into the lyrical meat of the album (“I will spit until I learn how to speak,” that sort of thing) and be bowled over by the grandiosity of it all. I also saw Jeff Mangum play a great solo show in Oakland one week before my mother died, which, for reasons that I think should be fairly obvious if you have listened to Neutral Milk Hotel, has heightened all the spectral heft of this weird-ass album. One may think that I would or maybe even should leave it alone after that, or that it would haunt me or something, or, conversely, that I would hold onto the album as a totem of some kind, but no, it’s endured as a spooky little artifact of a bad time with all of its power intact.
Giri Nathan: I am very nostalgic for the golden age of message-board internet, and those boards directed me to a lot of essential music I might’ve otherwise missed between, uh, Tool records. (In fairness, they are also probably responsible for the Tool records.) Back then the collective Posters’ Wisdom held that this record was perfect, and, unlike every other time I’d been told that, my very first listen of ITAOTS verified that judgment. I listened to this album constantly between the ages of 13-17 and not nearly enough since. Stupidly, I’ve spent a lot of that time since listening to other bands who aimed at the same mark and fell miles short. Not that there’s shame in their efforts—it really is perfect.
Luis Paez-Pumar: I think I first heard the album at some point in high school (perhaps I heard about it from the Halo message board on IGN that I mentioned here) but my first clear memory of listening to it was my freshman year of college. Of course it was. It immediately blew me away, in the way that music blows away 18-year-old idiots who moved thousands of miles away from home.
That's not what I most associate the album with, though. In the summer of 2009, I was working a horrible internship in Miami, where I'm from, and I was miserable. Like, “people were worried about me” miserable; I was drinking a lot every day, watching Blade Runner over and over for some reason, and generally not a pleasant person to be around. It didn't help that no one was around me; all my friends were either on vacation with their rich parents or doing internships in New York City.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the thing that got me through that summer. I would run out to my car on my lunch break and just play this album. Every day. For three months, this was my routine. Sometimes, I'd nap for a bit and wake up somewhere around "Oh Comely." Other times, I'd go get Pollo Tropical—Miami fast food chicken, it rocks—and THEN sit in my car listening to this.
ID: Like some of you, I was also in high school when I first heard this record. I was one of the kids on a popular Simpsons message board and all the other guys there would recommend albums that felt way cooler than anything I knew about at that time. My biggest memory about it was this feeling that you can be a "bad" singer but still be great. The other thing was how resonant the lyrics were to me. I also remember it being really important to Stephen Colbert, he talked about it as an album that got him through the grief of losing family members, which always stuck with me.
So after revisiting it, what was your impression now?
LT: I thought it would feel like walking through a mostly abandoned mall in my hometown, but with the exception of the title track, which now scans to me as pretty sleepy, I was highly engaged the whole time. Neutral Milk Hotel influenced a lot of what I would call weenie music, but songs like “Ghost” and “Holland, 1945” are crackling with energy that feels barely contained by the recording equipment. And aside from “Oh Comely,” this is a tight record with a great pace. It rarely gives you an opening to turn it off, because every track is probably someone’s favorite, and even the ones that are more like interludes make for exciting fragments. After years of staying on Avery Island, this listen was a really enjoyable reintroduction.
PR: Like Giri said earlier, this record is inimitable. You can see shreds of Aeroplane’s legacy picked up and abandoned by other bands, and while things like this album’s lo-fi haze or its elliptical lyrics or Mangum’s singing with only the very top part of his throat can be imitated, it’s only ever felt piecemeal. I like it even more now after giving it a few careful re-listens. It takes itself seriously as a capital-a Album, and whatever Dave McKennoid magic they did to make the guitars all sound simultaneously insistent and fuzzy is perfect. The sense of distortion that saturates the album is broken up, often, by these brilliant little bursts—a guitar puncturing through the fog, the refrain on “Two-Headed Boy.”
I also think I found the perfect drug cocktail for this album on Saturday. About two hours after taking paxlovid, 45 minutes after munching an edible, and 10 minutes after Googling “paxlovid thc what’s the deal” (the deal is: not recommended), I pressed play for my third listen of the week. It was as if I were hypnotized. Hewn from my senses by medication and the ailment that medication was doing combat with, the album’s blurriness was less of an obscurant and more of a guide.
LPP: Is it boring to say that it's just as good now? Because that was the main thing I took from it. The peaks on the album ("Two-Headed Boy," "Holland, 1945," "I love youuuuu, Jesuuuus Chriiiist") all worked for me this time around, and a lot of the cringe-y feelings I had about it just didn't exist. I'm 33 years old now; I can enjoy something painfully earnest and tryhard-y in peace! Who am I trying to fool anyway?
The one negative of hearing it now, though, is that "Oh Comely" isn't the end-all be-all greatest song I've ever heard, like I felt back when I was first listening to it. I'm a sucker for long songs, and I'm not entirely sure what the cause and effect is with "Oh Comely," whether I always loved them or whether this 8-minute opus partly about semen was what unlocked that love. Either way, it's still a great song, but I don't even think I'd say it's 33-year-old me's favorite anymore. (That's probably "Two-Headed Boy.")
Also, the title track is still the worst song on this album by a mile. That thought has never changed for me.
ID: I have revisited this album every few years, and each time I’m actually a little surprised at how much I still admire it and enjoy it. There are places that are dull to me but when it’s good, it really soars. “Holland, 1945,” “Oh Comely,” “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two”—just a lot of bangers to me still.
GN: It’s still perfect to me. This is not an especially original complaint, but I’ve become a real crank about the death of the album as a form, and the attendant art of sequencing tracks. This is a monument to both. Every idea bleeds perfectly into the next. It sounds as if they recorded it in one go. And they get into diverse territory—distorted noise, Eastern European circus(?), straight-ahead folk-punk–while staying entirely within a single key, as far as I can tell. It’s like a nice long trip: lots of little episodic jaunts, but also a nourishing sense of coherence.
LT: I have an embarrassing question: Does anyone else find this album sexy?
LPP: I think it might be the least sexy album of all time, to me. Too much semen in the lyrics.
ID: You know, I feel this way about Daniel Johnston as well. There’s something about the earnestness and passion at play from people who can’t really sing but do anyway that has an unmatched energy. I don’t know if I’d call it sexy necessarily, but it’s certainly raw and enigmatic and that’s pretty hot.
LT: I think it mostly comes to mind because I associate it with teenage hormones and “I want to kiss you so I’m going to make you listen to this.” But I also can’t shake the chorus of “Two-Headed Boy”: “In the dark / We will take off our clothes / And they'll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine.” It’s such a jarring image, and you have to be such a goth little weirdo to write it (especially if it’s about Anne Frank), that I end up hearing it as sensual and intimate and ultimately erotic.
GN: I think it’s pretty psychedelic in the sense that even the “sensual” and “searching” parts are bound up with some very gruesome and disorienting imagery. All the emotions are cross-wired, often in some very jarring ways. So, on balance, no.
PR: Not really, no. It is inarguably evocative and emotionally forceful but, to me, it’s not so much pointed towards desire as much as a desire for desire. I also haven’t been a teenager for a while, so.
ID: So, uh, what even is this album about anyway?
LT: I think it’s about how growing up around a lot of intense Christianity can give you a pretty wild imagination.
LPP: I think it's about longing (which is also why I don't find it sexy, but maybe I do find it romantic?). Obviously, the whole Anne Frank thing has been well-trod over the years, but I think that picking her as the specter hanging over the album allowed Mangum to really go for the unobtainable love.
It's also about being a child, I think. There's a playfulness to a lot of the lyrics, which is both because Mangum is having fun with the listener by making it impossible to answer this very question, but also, things like the "King of Carrot Flowers" or the "Two-Headed Boy," give an Alice in Wonderland-esque tint to the proceedings. Like that book, it's also darker than the fantastical nature of the lyrics appear to hint at.
Oh, and it's about semen. Can't forget that.
GN: It feels like a narrativized version of Mangum’s subconscious whenever he was writing it. I can’t think of too many songwriters who appear to leave the window between numinous thought and sung lyric so open. And as far as I understand him, he was a guy pretty shook up after reading about Anne Frank and seeking a musical community very different from the Christian South he came up in. While channeling, yes, a very potent imagination.
ID: I know it’s about loss, all kinds of different losses.
PR: It’s about being young, laying in the sun, and knowing it (defined generally) is ending soon.
LPP: I both like and think that it’s fitting that we are all over the place with our interpretations and somehow doing a good job of collectively hitting on every possible meaning for this album.
LT: Fuck, marry, kill: “The Fool, “Communist Daughter,” “Untitled.”
LPP: F: “Untitled,” M: “Communist Daughter,” K: “The Fool.”
LT: That’s exactly right.
ID: I agree.
GN: Yeah. “The Fool” is the only time I am ever aware that I have the choice to change the song.
PR: I am married to “The Fool,” say congratulations.
LPP: What’s your favorite lyric on the album?
LT: At the very, very end: “She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires / And retire to sheets safe and clean / But don't hate her when she gets up to leave.” There’s the feeling of loss that’s echoed in the finality of the album (and, by extension, NMH’s career). But I also just love the phrase “tomatoes and radio wires.”
ID: That’s a great one. For me, it’s pretty simple: "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.” In an album about childhood and loss and all sorts of philosophical blah blah blah, those lines define everything about growing up and how it feels to be young and seemingly invincible.
LPP: Lauren, dammit, I love that lyric too, but I tend to think about one a bit earlier in “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two”: "God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life." I was never religious, but the entire bridge of that song really does it for me. I'm more interested in spirituality than religion anyway, and thinking of the concept of "God" as more than just the Catholic God that I grew up around gets me every time. It's a beautiful sentiment, that God is all around us, and perhaps in the community that we make with other people. I don’t know, I’m getting a bit emotional now just writing about it!
PR: I love all of these answers. My favorite is probably the end of “Two-Headed Boy,” after Mangum has spent three minutes singing at full force and playing an acoustic guitar as hard as anyone could possibly play one, when he slows down and almost speaks in italics: “And I will take you and leave you alone / Watching spirals of white softly flow / Over your eyelids and all you did / Will wait until the point when you let go.” Like I said: death.
GN: I don’t know why but all the finger-related imagery has stuck with me. So there’s the one Lauren flagged above: “In the dark / We will take off our clothes / They'll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine.” And also this one on the title track: “Oh how I remember you / How I would push my fingers through / Your mouth to make those muscles move / That made your voice so smooth and sweet.” Yucky and indelible.
LT: So, after relistening to Aeroplane, does anyone wish that Neutral Milk Hotel had made more records? Or does this feel too perfect to follow up?
ID: I would’ve loved another album, even one not as good, but ultimately I completely side with any decision an artist makes about their art, even if that includes not making anymore of it.
PR: I’m glad it was never followed up, especially since Mangum seemed wholly uninterested in ever doing so.
LT: I can’t help but be curious for more, but there’s something special about the way this stands out. I’m not sure we’d be talking about it now if there were like 10 albums of inconsistent quality separating now from then. Aeroplane feels timeless in that way.
LPP: Nope. And not because this one is too perfect, but because there are plenty of other albums out there, and I like that he got almost all he needed to say out in a tight 40 minutes then mostly went away. Also, On Avery Island is merely "fine," so I didn't want to find out if Neutral Milk Hotel was a really good band with a classic album, or an OK band who outkicked their coverage on this one.
GN: He seems like the kind of guy who writes songs every waking minute but only releases it if a certain threshold is crossed, and I respect that: low barrier for conception, high barrier for public consumption. So if there are no more records for us to hear, that’s OK. Though I like the idea of making Jeff Mangum immerse himself in another memoir and then seeing what album results. Like, George Karl’s. It’s called Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection. It’s been on my shelf for years and I have no idea why, so hit me up, Jeff.
Defector's Favorite Jams From February
Kelela - Raven
Kelela has emerged out of the dark hibernation that is not making an album since 2017, with the emo club album that is only too perfect in 2023. Kelela's brand of evocative and vulnerable ethereal-pop has only grown in resonance as we tumble forward into our dystopian nightmare. On Raven, she's at her moodiest, but it's just as sexy and groovy as its ever been. It's an album built just as much for dancing in your dark room alone as it is for dancing in that club from The Matrix Reloaded.
Fucked Up - One Day
In their 20-plus years of making loud music, Fucked Up have distinguished themselves in the field of outré rock-and-roll excellence by releasing either six or (depending on your taxonomical rigidity/feelings about the zodiac calendar) 15 studio albums, playing a 12-hour outdoor live show, being led by a singer who is at all times screaming or bleeding or both, self-releasing a soundtrack to a silent movie from the '20s, and doing so much psychic damage to the concept of genre that it's a meaningless lens through which to consider their output. Their real flair for formal experimentalism must be commended, though none of it would work if the music did not kick ass.
In this sense, their latest album One Day may be their most straightforward work since 2014's Glass Boys. The hook here is that the four core members of the band each had a total of 24 hours to write and record their parts of the album. Gimmicky, sure, but only if the result feels rushed or incomplete. That One Day is instead Fucked Up's most cohesive record maybe ever (it helps here that their prior album is an uber-maximalist rock opera) is less surprising than it should be.
These guys have made music together, forever, and the opportunity to make a "normal" album instead of a movie-length odyssey every few years probably feels refreshing. It lurches as far afield as power pop-ish sludge (kind of; like if the New Pornographers swapped A.C. Newman for Literally A Gun) and classico-style hardcore, all while staying relatively focused. It's almost too small, if, like me, you fell in love with this band around the time of David Comes To Life. Take heart: Surely this is all prelude to some 2026, 186-minute chamber-metal piece about the great Egg War of 1863.
Young Thug - "Rosetta Stone"
To follow Young Thug's music is to heed leaks, springing everywhere. At every phase of Jeffery Williams's career, alongside his intended releases, unofficial tracks have tumbled out of untrustworthy hard drives. This was the case when he was preparing his infamous, stillborn debut album. It is still the case, darkly, as Williams sits at the center of a massive RICO trial in Atlanta. Some Young Thug leaks rank among his finest work, and "Rosetta Stone," which emerged late last year, joins that group. Judging by the twangs we might carbon-date it to 2017, his cowboy-inflected era. It's hard to listen to this music while Williams is under siege from his hometown's grandstanding D.A. It's also a little hard to read what he's been accused of in the indictment. As I follow this case, I am struck, if not quite comforted, by this reminder of Thugger's omnivorous stylistic range; his knack for squeezing micro-melodies into unexpected gaps; his verbal D20 roll that can yield an hideous clunker in one breath, and, in the very next, the rallying cry you never knew you needed. This is a singalong for a high-desert campfire. "Put your hand in the sky / because you're blessed and you're gonna get another chance," Williams howls, and I can only wonder if he will.
Boygenius - "Not Strong Enough"
When boygenius, the trio consisting of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, released a trio of songs in January as promo for the indie supergroup's upcoming debut album, I was a bit disappointed. Well, that's not fair; each of the three songs—“$20,” “Emily I’m Sorry,” and “True Blue”— played to their respective singer's strengths, and they were all good to great. However, the best moments on the self-titled EP that boygenius released back in 2018 were when the trio bounced off each other in the same song. I was a bit worried, hearing this new triad of songs, that they had moved away from that in the time away from each other.
And then came "Not Strong Enough." The fourth single from the record, released on March 1, is exactly what I love about the trio. They take turns on the song, showcasing their talents: Bridgers deploys the first verse, Baker the second, and then Dacus brings it all home with the bridge and the exit chorus. The song has a bit more propulsion than any of the boygenius catalog, more akin to something from Dacus’s excellent Home Video than the stripped-bare instrumentation of the boygenius EP. It works! All three members released fantastic albums since 2018, and I’d love to see each of those sounds creep into their collaboration. If that’s the case, then “Not Strong Enough” might just be the opening salvo.
Really, I should have never doubted them. In retrospect, the strategy of releasing pseudo-solo songs first before landing the knockout punch with "Not Strong Enough" is the perfect way to go about it. The trio’s album comes out at the end of March, and even if there are no more singles released between now and then, I am already at maximum hype.
Caroline Polachek - "Welcome To My Island"
Caroline Polachek is one of those few clothing-store alt-pop artists that won't put you to sleep. She came up in the electro indie band Chairlift, which briefly had a moment at a time when a lot of indie bands had moments, but since going full solo about six years ago, her music's become gayer, more diva-like, and ultimately better. She's maybe not the most revolutionary of her peers, but everyone will dance to her at a house party.
This is the opening track off her new album, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, which takes its name from the chorus. You can belt it and groove to it and love it for the very simple pleasures it straightforwardly provides. The sly, low-budget video's another strong one from Polachek's catalogue, too. There's a charisma in her lanky moves that suggests she's another universe's Taylor Swift.
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