(I can see the headlines now: “university student tries to defend Pablo Honey but somehow thinks it’s okay to slate In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.”) Music and memes are a dangerous, dangerous combination. Do these people actually love this album, or are they being ironic? Should I be enjoying this without any reservations? Do people genuinely like vaporwave? And is In The Aeroplane Over The Sea really one of the defining albums of the 1990s?
I kind of feel as if I’ve already listened to it even though I never actually have – simply through relentless internet exposure – but it’s safe to say that I am very, very “Late to the Party” indeed on this one. Based on the level of attention the album garners, as well as its very cool artwork, it has been on my listen list (mental, not physical, by the way) for a while. After repeated listens, however, I’m struggling to see how the record could have achieved the status it has without some degree of irony at play.
Production wise, it’s rough around the edges: very overblown and lo-fi at points. Frontman Mangum also strains his voice to its absolute limits on quite a few songs. Admittedly, fuzz-folk is a unique combination – but not really a classic one, and whilst I think it’s impressive that frontman Jeff Magnum can sing for such long periods of time without taking a break – it seems like he could definitely beat most people out in a holding-your-breath-underwater competition at the swimming pool – he does stray just a little too far out of key on occasion. I can appreciate a song like “Oh Comely,” but more as a kind of singing bleep test than strictly as a result of its artistic merits.
With regards to the arrangement: on most tracks it sounds like Mangum wrote a decent acoustic number and then invited the other band members to track a bit of a mess of horns, bagpipes, organs, singing saws and whatever else they had lying around over the top without really thinking too much about what they were doing. The overall effect is pretty messy. Everything on here is pretty simplistic as well, and that’s not a criticism in itself – but I did kind of had more fun googling In The Aeroplane Over The Sea than actually listening to it, which is not exactly the greatest of signs.
I had more fun Googling In the Aeroplane over the sea…Than actually listening
Is it the lyrics that do it, then? The record is widely considered to be about Anne Frank: “Holland, 1945” is an obvious reference, and Mangum has admitted that her diary had a great influence on his work. Whilst a bit of an out there and an interesting concept for the album, and definitely some cool imagery – there is no real consistent narrative, the ideas are not delivered all that well, and throwing in lyrics like “Sweet Communist / The Communist Daughter / Standing on the sea-weed water / Semen stains the mountain tops” read a little more random than strictly genius. Does Mangum really deserve to be described as “The Salinger of Indie Rock” for this?
It would be unfair to state that the record is not well received outside of its cult status on the internet. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was definitely at least mildly-acclaimed on first release, and many people whose musical opinions I trust count it as a top five personal favourite. So, yeah, I’m sure there are those who do genuinely love this album – after all, an 111-page book on it was published in 2005, and I’m sure those with In The Aeroplane Over The Sea tattoos weren’t doing it just for a laugh – but I really did expect something very, very good. As in, OK Computer, Nevermind, Loveless good.
A true classic should be more than just a cult classic to its diehard fans
I think that a true classic should be more than just a cult classic to its diehard fans: “outsiders” should be able to listen to it and appreciate it for what it is. For me, however, on the whole In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is a slightly-better-than-average folk/indie record with a few novel twists: namely its lo-fi production and unique subject material. Either I’ve been outmaneuvered in the irony stakes, or there’s something I’m just not getting. Not that I think albums should come with listening instructions, but I have heard that reading A Separate Peace and putting In The Aeroplane Over The Sea on repeat at the same time might help “get me into it.” So, who knows? Maybe I’ll read this again in a year’s time and totally regret writing this.