In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was originally slated to sell about 7,000 copies. A master release from Merge Records penciled in 5,500 prospective units on CD and 1,600 more on vinyl. This wasn’t a burial; it was prudent. In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel was a mildly acclaimed indie-rock band propped up by a modest debut album and a staunch and sticky Athens, Georgia scene. It received decent, plainspoken reviews: Rolling Stone offered three out of five stars, kissing it off with the kicker, “Aeroplane is thin-blooded, woolgathering stuff.” A prototypical version of Pitchfork blessed the record with 187 words and an unstandardized 8.7 rating. Robert Christgau rated it a “neither” with a frowny face and didn’t bother drafting a capsule. It’s the standard response to a confusing second album from a band without a preexisting pedigree: distant praise, hedged bets, avoiding the heart at all cost.
And then, the next 15 years happened.
The Syd Barrett-ification of Jeff Mangum was quick and unruly. Five years after its initial shrug, Pitchfork slotted Aeroplane in the number-four slot on its top 100 albums of the ’90s list, defiantly ahead of Pavement, DJ Shadow, and Nirvana. “[Mangum] gnashes his teeth at the fabric of time, then wraps himself in it like a blanket, channeling the violence of his personal past through a claustrophobic frustration with his dejected present,” wrote Matt LeMay in a prescient, purple-as-hell blurb. The revisionism is especially apparent when considering that the album was listed at a distant 85 in the publication’s original ’90s tally published at the tail end of 1999.
In 2011, Rolling Stone recast the record with a near-perfect four and a half stars, surmising, “As a whole, Aeroplane is a fragile, creaky, dignified, and ballsy record—one that would spawn its own passionate cult.” In 2008, Slate leaned heavily into the mythology, eagerly dubbing Mangum “The Salinger Of Indie Rock.” In 2014, Salon said that Aeroplane “feels like a body of mythic experience, animated by some original energy from before the Common Era. Whoever or whatever authored the album feels as remote in time and space as the Big Bang, and as omnipresent.” It’s been a lot.
Once upon a time, Neutral Milk Hotel was like any other indie-rock band. Its members sold merch, played shows, did interviews, and talked to fans. All they did was put out a record—the rest of the world lifted them into the stratosphere. Plenty of bands are steeped in folklore: Brian Wilson’s breakdown in the Smile sessions and Kevin Shields losing his marbles and bankrupting Creation Records in the tortured run-up to Loveless. Aeroplane didn’t come with any prepackaged legacy. It’s just a powerful record, but Mangum’s retreat from the increasing, post hoc spotlight projected onto his art has only stoked those fires more.
In a 2003 cover story about the band in Creative Loafing, journalist Kevin Griffis attempted to track down Mangum for some personal and mythological closure. The closest he gets is a terse, frustrated email.
“I’m not an idea. I am a person, who obviously wants to be left alone. If my music has meant anything to you, then you’ll respect that,” wrote Mangum. “Since it’s my life and my story, I think I should have a little say as to when it’s told. I haven’t been given that right.”
He’s not entirely correct; Mangum is a public figure making commercial art. We are supposed to relate, and we are entitled to our curiosity. But it does give me pause to consider how completely out of control the creed surrounding Neutral Milk Hotel has become. There is no scandal burbling around In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, no tragedy or darkness, nothing lost or unconsummated, no imprisoned brooding genius. Jeff Mangum is not Kevin Shields or Brian Wilson or D’Angelo. A band recorded an album and called it a day. The poetic injustice is invented and prescribed by us. Seriously, how did we let it get this far?
“Neutral Milk Hotel already had a legend in Athens, but I don’t think anyone locally expected it to grow to what it is now,” says Jonathan Cahoon, a writer from Georgia who estimates that he saw Neutral Milk Hotel about 10 times throughout the ’90s. “When I see what’s happened over the last 15 years or so, I’ve been continually surprised. How did this thing reach this point? When network sitcoms are referencing the record, you’ve reached a ridiculous place.”
It’s fair to say that most Neutral Milk Hotel fans today don’t have any visceral memories of the band when it was first making music. It’s far easier to project a lot of drama on a group that doesn’t have the opportunity to speak for itself. It’s an odd situation that makes people like Cahoon a rare breed. He had the unique chance to process Mangum as a human being before any third-party adherents hijacked the narrative.
“I don’t ever think about the mythology. I bought the record direct from the band at their album-release show. It was just a great record made by the people who lived in the same town as me,” says Cahoon. “The mythology aspect is kind of annoying. I think it’s a testament to how good the record is that, while the mythology has completely overwhelmed it, people can still discuss the songs without defaulting to the legend.”
Nobody knows exactly where the allegorical rhetoric surrounding Neutral Milk Hotel began. Usually a mythos builds around a flashpoint, like Robert Smith touting Nick Drake or Kurt Cobain showing up to interviews in Daniel Johnston’s Hi, How Are You T-shirts. Brandon Stosuy, director of editorial operations at Pitchfork, became a fan of Neutral Milk Hotel after its first album, On Avery Island. He certainly remembers a warm reception to Aeroplane but nothing to the extent to which it’s now grown.
“Things happened a little more organically back then. I got introduced to Neutral Milk Hotel because I worked in a record shop,” says Stosuy. “I remember hearing Aeroplane and being blown away by it on a trip from Lethbridge [Alberta] to Calgary. It felt like a classic record, but things were a little more casual and not everything was framed as such a thing. These days everyone hypes everything. Someone can put out a crappy 7-inch and people are like ‘This is fire!’ It was more like, ‘I like this record, and I’m excited for the next one coming out.’ It didn’t have that cult feeling. We definitely were going through the lyrics and analyzing them—that was there—but it felt different because it was in the moment, and they were a band that existed in that moment.”
Cahoon says he noticed a shift in the dialogue after he left Georgia to live in Boston. He was used to Mangum being whispered about in hushed tones, but this was the first time he met people who talked about him as though he were a god or ghost.
“It was around 2003,” says Cahoon. “I started to meet people who were in college or younger who had that reverence. The people around my age who were listening to Neutral Milk Hotel in 1996, ’97, ’98 were like me and saw it as a great record by a great band.”
The interesting thing about the fascination and fetishization of Mangum is that it’s hard to know where things escalated. There was never a clear refocus, no obvious transitional steps between the 8.7s and the 10.0s. It might seem weird considering music fans traditionally rely on major influencers to make things famous, but it makes more sense the longer you look. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea arrived in 1998, at the dawn of the Information Age, a time where ordinary men and women could reject the critical media and rely on each other to construct a legacy on their own terms.
Would Aeroplane occupy the same untouchable place in American indie-rock culture if it was released in 1992? Or 1987? It’s hard to say. The internet has a one-of-a-kind relationship with Neutral Milk Hotel. The record has its very own section on the lollercopter database Know Your Meme, dedicated to the many, many ways the lore has been upheld or parodied or rediscovered over the years. The mania will never end. Those who loved Neutral Milk Hotel at the beginning might find the fanaticism silly, and they’re not wrong, but that doesn’t invalidate the consistently transformative effect this band has had on young people.
“I spent a lot of time cruising iTunes seeing what people who were into The Shins liked. When I got the album, I never heard anything like it before,” says Caroline Rayner, a poetry student in Massachusetts who proudly wears a Neutral Milk Hotel tattoo across her shoulders. “The lyrics were really beautiful and really upsetting, and I had never experienced any music that could do that. It was a really intense experience for me. I looked into the album more and more and got more obsessed.”
My very first paycheck from the Round Table Pizza I worked at in high school went to an Etsy shop that made custom Vans with the In The Aeroplane Over The Sea album cover delicately painted on each shoe. It is, without a doubt, the most embarrassing purchase of my life. It was my favorite record; they were my favorite band; I spent years digging through the internet, trying to find answers to questions that Mangum never really asked. I fell for it. I know I did, but it’s still maybe my most cherished memory from my early, growing interest in underground music.
Years later, I caught Neutral Milk Hotel on their reunion tour and watched them hawk posters and T-shirts in a venue offering $6 Bud Lites. It was good and cathartic but also the final confirmation that Neutral Milk Hotel was made of mortal men, with mortgages and tour riders and a willingness to break silence if the price was high enough. Their flesh and bones were on full display for a demographic who spent a decade trying to convince themselves otherwise. No plans for future music, no new interviews, no new interpretations or explanations. The mystery ends with a cash-in.
“With Twitter it feels like everyone knows everything, but back then anyone in any band, regardless if they were a hermit or not, felt not knowable because they weren’t posting anything. You were here, and they were there,” says Stosuy. “Mangum was interesting because he was here for a moment, and then he stopped. It’s why I’m still interested in Ian Mackaye and his steadfastness on not reuniting Fugazi. That’s why when Neutral Milk Hotel came back it was disappointing, because they weren’t really coming back. Years of this permanence, years of disappearing for the right reasons, and then here they are again.”
“I’m sure the shows were great,” says Cahoon. “But my friends and I always joked that a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion show would be the most obnoxious show ever. Thousand of young people shouting along to every word so loudly that you couldn’t hear the band.”
There’s this attitude that In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is still holding something back. A belief that Neutral Milk Hotel is keeping secrets, and our grand unified theory about the twins, the potato, the singing saw, the piano full of flames, and the marching band, is missing a few crucial teeth. A cult needs something to work toward, a communal faith that someday, somehow, it’ll all come together. But they were wrong. Mangum’s fantasies and terrors briefly aligned with his commendable creative ability and manifested in an amazing album that’s touched millions of people. Along the way, we lost sight. Maybe it’s more fun to think of Mangum as one of America’s lost poets, but his reclusiveness was not meant to encourage that doctrine. The man behind the curtain buys groceries and drives a Volvo. That can be beautiful, too.