My thoughts on what might be one of the greatest albums of all time.
This album is without a doubt one of the most beautiful, haunting, interesting pieces of music I have ever listened to. Released on February 10th, 1998, by the band Neutral Milk Hotel, this album has existed for nearly two decades, yet its influence is still present and its raw power and beauty never seems to fade. From the opening guitar chords of King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1 to the final soft, gentle hums of Two Headed Boy Pt. 2, this album is something like a story. A non-linear story about Anne Frank, WWII, mortality, and sexuality. And it is an intense journey to go on.
Anne Frank was a huge influence on the creation of this album. Neutral Milk Hotel's lead singer, Jeff Mangum, was known for being almost obsessed with Anne Frank's story, and this is made quite apparent throughout the album. On the song “Holland, 1945” Mangum sings “The only girl I've ever loved / Was born with roses in her eyes / But then they buried her alive / One evening, 1945.” He goes on to sing about how she was buried with her sisters at her side and how her father had survived and found her diary after the war. He also alludes to the idea that Anne was reincarnated as “...a little boy in Spain / playing pianos filled with flames” which could be a metaphor for the way her story has lived on beyond her life, with her diary being the piano and the story of the pain she felt during WWII and then her eventually death being the flames.
He mentions Anne again in the song “Oh Comely” which is a slow, acoustic song with a lot of vivid sexual imagery. “And pluck all your silly string, bend all your notes for me / Soft silly music is meaningful, magical / The movements were beautiful, all in your ovaries.” And lines like this are all over this song, describing the beauty and the crudeness of sexuality. And again he references Anne Frank, further showing his admiration and the role she plays in the album. “And I know they buried her body with others / Her sister and mother and five-hundred families / And will she remember me fifty years later? / I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine.” It kills him that he can't help her and that she didn't get to live her whole life out, exploring all the facets of life that we all get to experience, should we be lucky enough to live that long.
The three best parts of this album, in my opinion, come in three different songs; “In the Aeroplane Over The Sea,” “Two Headed Boy Pt. 1,” and “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2.” The chord progression in “Aeroplane” is mesmerizing, as is the singing saw that wobbles throughout the track, materializing the imagery presented in the lines “Anna's ghost all around / Hear her voice as it's rolling and ringing through me / Soft and sweet / How the notes all bend and reach above the trees.” The lyrics are incredible and poignant throughout this entire track, my personal favorites being “What a beautiful face / I have found in this place / That is circling all 'round the sun” and “Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” It's difficult to put into words the kind of emotions you feel when Mangum sings these lyrics with such carefreeness that the possibly scary ideas he contemplates in this song sound almost magical and comforting. When he says “And one day we will die / And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea” you're unafraid. You can embrace the thought that one day you will be gone and the memories you leave behind will be but ashes in the sea.
“Two Headed Boy Pt.1” and “Pt. 2” continue this beautiful imagery and lyricism. Pt. 1 describes a boy trapped inside of a jar who is in love with Anne Frank, trying to build her a radio “just for two” so he can convey his love to her through music. The Two Headed Boy says “And in the dark we will take off our clothes / And they'll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine” at first sounding like they are going to get intimate with each other, until it is interrupted by something foul, possibly referring to the Nazi's finding Anne and taking her away. Pt. 2 describes the Two Headed Boy again, this time having to let go of Anne because he knows he cannot escape his jar and must let her move on with her life. Mangum sings “And when we break we'll wait for a miracle / God is a place where some holy spectacle lies / When we break we'll wait for a miracle / God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.” This line gives two possible meanings, one being that death is desirable and that when one of them dies the other will wait for them and eventually reunited. The other possible meaning, of course, is that God doesn't exist and waiting for the rest of your life means to waste your time on earth hoping that something better will come in the afterlife.
There are too many fantastic moments on this album to mention all in one paper, and I urge you to check the album out yourself because my abysmal descriptions don't do it justice. The only way you can truly feel the emotion in these songs is to listen to them yourself. I promise you won't regret.