What Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ Is Really About

At the core of Neutral Milk Hotel's highly acclaimed 1998 album is an exploration of love and the process of unity and separation.
Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 magnum opus In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is astounding in the same two ways that a skyscraper is astounding. Standing at the base, looking up — or to stand at the top, looking down 100 stories — inspires an inarticulate awe, a strange joy at the chance to witness so marvelous a thing. This is the layman’s awe.

Then there is the engineer’s awe. The engineer feels this same rush, but his awe is compounded by a technical understanding of the immense craft and precision necessary to build such a wonder. The same goes for an age-old Redwood; its grandeur is immediate for all to see, but there is a special sublimity reserved for the biologist, who can look and break the tree down into its billion constituent miracles.

Most of the time when In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is mentioned, it is with the laymen’s awe: “The fucking greatest album of all time!” “It changed my life!” “It’s just so… raw!” These are all true, and worthy responses that I dare not devalue. At the same time, however, discussion of the album tends to remain so rapt, and so zealous, that it rarely calms down into the engineer’s awe; that is, a more in-depth analysis of the album’s inner-workings. It is wonderful to let the sheer power of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself or Toni Morrison’s Beloved wash over you, but it is just as necessary to afterwards hunker down into the secret tunnels of the author’s project, to trace themes and characters and motifs to the work’s bright and beating heart. That is my intention with the following analysis.

What is the album about, then? It’s a hard and possibly reductive question, one that I’m sure even frontman Jeff Mangum would be uneasy to answer. I met him a few years back in Ohio, and we talked just long enough for me to ask if a particular lyric in “Oh Comely” was about Anne Frank. He took a merciful pause, before a gentle answer: “No… But, I mean, it could mean that if you want it to.” Sweet, sweet Jeff. Is the album about the Holocaust? Certainly, yes. Procreation, God, loss: it’s all there, too.

But the album’s nucleus is an exploration of the lover’s desire to merge with the loved – the human drive to become one with the people (or things) we love most. Furthermore, the LP examines how, as Mangum shows, this drive can go horribly wrong. This theme, more than any other, is the golden thread that keeps the album’s floating pieces together.

Anyone knows, or can at least appreciate, the feeling of love that cannot bear separation; the heart pines to beat only ever in the presence of the beloved. It is a vigorous, restless love that teeters on the edge of possession and consumption. “Merging” is when we become a part of them, and they a part of us. Of course, this concept has roots dating back a long time before the ’90s.

Perhaps the most iconic iteration of this phenomenon comes from the Hebrew Bible, wherein God declares: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). Even today, marriage symbolizes the socio-legal merging of two parties into one. The merging of lover and loved is also crucial to Plato’s Symposium, wherein a group of pretty drunk)men sit around all night talking about love. The character Aristophanes shares a particularly resonant idea: all pairs of lovers begin as one single pod, and then are torn apart, and left to spend their days seeking out their other half, that the two may finally be reunited in one body. For Aristophanes, love is the desire to merge: love “calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.”

This is the same arena Mangum entered in writing In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Mangum’s brilliance lies in the fact that he addresses this highly abstract concept on a purely concrete, or tangible plane. That is, Mangum chooses to talk about a philosophical idea in purely physical terms. He packs the album full of characters trying to literally merge into each other’s bodies as a metaphor for how we yearn to connect with those we love.

Recall the end of “Oh Comely”: “Goldaline, my dear, / We will fold and freeze together / … Place your body here, / Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine.” Also remember how Mangum addresses Anne Frank in “Ghost:” “One that I loved / With all that was left within me ‘till we tore in two.” This is not the warbling of an incoherent cook; it is tightly engineered engagement with some very serious ideas. This is not to insist that Mangum wrote “Ghost” with Plato in mind, of course, but there is certainly a sophisticated nucleus around which Mangum’s lyrics revolve.

The album’s third song, the title track, offers perhaps its most clear and self-contained vision of Mangum’s project. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is about love and yearning, and inherent to this yearning is a desire to merge and possess. It is not enough that (presumably Anne Frank’s) “beautiful face” is there for Mangum to see and appreciate; rather, he sings, “Let me hold it close and keep it here with me.” It is not enough to merely count “every beautiful thing” that he sees; Mangum wants to keep them, again, “here with me”.

Recall our definition of love-merging, and how its foundation is a love that cannot bear separation, a heart that pines to beat only ever in the presence of the beloved. This radical love is certainly present in “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, teetering on the urge to exercise ownership of the beloved. Here, Mangum presents the imperceptibly fine line between love and possession. Mangum illustrates love’s drama with language of the body: “How I would push my fingers through/ Your mouth to make those muscles move.” All in one song, then, we see the strange blending of bodies as a metaphor for love that seeks to unify and own.

The most complex example of Mangum’s symbolism is his “Two-Headed Boy”, a baby with two heads preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. At first, this grotesque image appears eccentric at best, and gratuitous at worst. But when viewed through the lens of love-merging, Mangum’s intentions — and his genius — snap into focus. The “Boy”. it turns out, is a ghastly symbol for two who have tried unsuccessfully to merge into one autonomous and coherent entity. The separate identities, or heads, do share a body, but their mangled form floating in formaldehyde is far from a Platonic vision. Here we realize that, in talking about love, Mangum’s scope extends beyond mere romantic love; he is concerned with all yearning and affection that leads us into dangerous pools of interdependence.

Mangum reveals the figure’s true nature in “Two Headed Boy, Part 2”, where one head speaks about the other head: “Love to be with a brother of mine, how he’d love to find / Your tongue in his teeth.” Soon, the one head addresses the other directly: “Brother, see we are one in the same / … Don’t you take this away, I’m still wanting my face on your cheek.” Haunting as it is, the one head is being completely literal in saying, “we are one in the same”; for the two people indeed stem from one body. Perhaps just as haunting is the presence of such gentle affection and fraternal touch built into such a dire image. Here, Mangum offers a disturbingly literal illustration of love that is caught someplace between two people and one flesh.

With this framework in mind, we can begin to make sense of the incessant corporeality of Mangum’s lyrics. If any of the five senses dominates his album, it is certainly the sense of touch. Many times, we see body parts mingling and penetrating in ways that don’t seem quite right. Yet, this mingling echoes and reinforces all of the body-merging that swirls throughout the album. In “Two Headed Boy”, for example: “We will take off our clothes / And they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine.” And in “King of Carrot Flowers, Part I,” Mangum sings: “And from above you how I sank into your soul/ Into that secret place where no one dares to go.” In “Two Headed-Boy, Part 2:” “As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet.” Again, the ending to “Oh Comely:” “Place your body here, / Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine.” Without context, these strange images mean very little, but they take on new life when viewed as constituent bricks in the album’s centermost theme.

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Is Mangum glorifying this love-drive? Is he portraying it with no pretense to judgment, or does he outright condemn it? What does the maestro make of the love-merging that infiltrates nearly every corner of his album? In fact, Mangum makes his judgment quite clear: a lover’s desire to merge must be abandoned in favor of individual autonomy. This, more than anything, is the crux of the entire album, and the theoretical framework upon which it stands.

Here we must return to “Two Headed Boy Part II”, wherein Mangum ties together the album’s pieces into an impossibly rich conclusion. Like the album at large, the song is about love and desire, although not necessarily of an erotic kind. The lyrics drip with the one brother’s affectionate yearning for his other brother (or head). But there is also the two-headed boy’s desire for his caretaker: “She is all you could need / She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires.” More than that, there is a father’s yearning for a child: “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.”

There are so many relationships present that some lyrics become impossible to decipher; for example, “And in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying / … and I’ll love you / For the rest of your life when you’re ready” could be one brother speaking to his other pickled head, yet “Rings of flowers ‘round your eyes” bring us back to “Holland 1945”, and we wonder if this isn’t Mangum speaking once again to the ghost of Anne Frank. All we can know for certain is the ever-present throb of longing.

In the same way, the iconic refrain “And when we break we’ll wait for our miracle” operates on a number of levels. On the one hand, it illustrates the conception of a child. That is, after sex, the merging of two bodies into one, a couple waits for the miracle that is childbirth. The miracle, then, is the child for whom the anonymous father’s heart “screams”. At the same time, this refrain could just as easily pass from one brother to the other; “and when we break” may allude to some kind of medical separation. Their miracle would be life as two autonomous individuals, no longer constrained in the prison of a single body.

While the rest of the album has been about people gruesomely trying to blend and merge together, now we see for the first time a push towards the opposite pole: people moving apart. While Mangum illustrates the drive to merge in fairly ghastly ways, his tone changes radically when talking about separation. His use of the word “miracle” is no mistake. Painful as it may seem — “Don’t you take this away, I’m still wanting your face on my cheek” — there is a divinity and redemption to be found in one’s autonomy.

The real “miracle” of Mangum’s project is the realization that one cannot merge successfully with another, and that any love that jeopardizes the individual cannot hold. After all, think of the merging we’ve seen throughout: two mangled boys floating like a science experiment and two other people melting together “inside some stranger’s stomach”. Do any of these metaphors seem even remotely hopeful or redemptive?

Mangum ends the album with a simple direction for the the two-headed boy: “Two-headed boy, she is all you could need / 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.” Here, Mangum acknowledges the boy’s love and dependence on his caretaker, but above all urges the boy to acknowledge her autonomy. The two-headed boy may love her, yearn for her, and wish to keep her around — all for himself — but in the end he must come to terms with the fact that no one can possess another.

No love entitles ownership, and no yearning should infringe on an individual’s autonomy. This realization is perhaps as lonesome as the boy himself, floating in formaldehyde, but it is also liberating and divine.

PJ Sauerteig is a recent graduate of Columbia University, where he studied Creative Writing and Psychology. He has published poetry, as well as music criticism, and is the founder of Massif Records. He is originally from Indiana.