An underrated masterpiece, perpetually overshadowed by its legendary successor. And that's quite natural. This is a collection of songs, not a cohesive, epic, all encompassing vision. It's not a hyper ambitious profound artistic statement. Jeff Mangum's surreal lyrics and over emoting vocals have yet to go completely over the top, and the band's signature blend of folk and indie rock favors the latter more than would subsequently be the case, making them sound a bit less unique.
But that doesn't change the fact that this is an exceptionally strong album. The songs are uniformly excellent, and the band already has a very distinctive sound. The fuzz rockers are catchy, the folk ballads are haunting and the group's already learned how to make brilliant use of horn accompaniments.
And while the album may not be as daring as its follow up, that's not to say that the band wholly abstains from experimentation. The controversial closer, Pree-Sisters Swallowing A Donkey's Eye, is the band's flirtation with ambient. Often maligned for its monotony, self-indulgence and bloated length, it can still be quite hypnotic, and it makes for an interesting change of pace from the rest of the album.
What the album lacks in scope and grandeur it makes up for with sheer melodic power. Mangum's vocal melodies are superlative, creative riffs abound and horn highlights make for some moments of pure beauty.
One could complain of the persistent indie fuzz suffused with the album's sound, with some of the melodies buried under layers upon layers of fuzzy production, but it's not to hard to adjust to, and ultimately it's never much of a challenge to retrieve the melodies from underneath this fuzzy tempest.
Overall an excellent album, one without which its successor couldn't exist. The band needed to establish the foundation of their sound, and they certainly achieve that aim here. What it lacks in depth it compensates for with the already present strong songwriting of the group, songwriting that would only continue to improve with time.
The group's magnum opus, and an improvement over their debut in every respect. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is more resonant, more powerful and more memorable than OAI, and a fulfillment of all the potential they exhibited in the humble beginnings.
Where the debut was a collection of excellent rock songs with a unique style, ItAOtS envelopes you in another world, a world of alternating beauty, devastation and, all too often, both. Their style has become so interwoven into the music that it seems less a stylistic choice and more an inherent, organic part of the group, utterly inseparable from them.
The album is allegedly a concept album centered around the life of Anne Frank, but I'm somewhat dubious of what may be little more than a put on. The lyrics are consummately cryptic, and betray few signs of relating to the proposed premise. They are intriguing, however, and certainly have an enormous amount of thematic continuity, whether or not they pertain directly to that particular subject. They present a plethora of striking, disturbing images, and Mangum's fully unleashed vocals animate them with a great deal of potency.
The songwriting has improved immeasurably, and each track boasts one or more brilliant melodies. The horns no longer seem like embellishments, often assuming the role of the focal elements of the songs. While Mangum's vocal gymnastics are a tad dissonant and may take time to get used to they fit the music perfectly.
This is a deeply emotional album, and the songs penetrate far deeper than those in the debut. The disparity isn't because this outing's a concept album; the difference is that this is a band who have fully developed their sound and can engulf the listener into a new sonic landscape, making them forget that they're just listening to a rock album. OAI was a great rock album; this is more than a rock album. This is a brilliant expression of everything the group had to say, and rather than forcing the group to sacrifice the quality of their songwriting to make way for their ambitions, this actually enhances it, further inspiring them to musical greatness.
Neutral Milk Hotel were a special band and this album is a testament to their greatness. It may not be such a loss that they disbanded after this, or at least consigned themselves to a never-ending hiatus, as one can only wonder where they could've gone from here. This album is a vision into another world, and something that must be experienced by every rock fan.