BY SAMIHA FAROOQI//
To many, there is no indie without Neutral Milk Hotel. Specifically, there is no indie-rock without the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel’s second and final album. In 2010, The Pitt News dubbed them “the forefathers of indie.” In 2011, The Rolling Stone remarked that they were a “generational touchstone.” And in 2014, Salon said, “whoever or whatever authored the album feels as remote in time and space as the Big Bang, and as omnipresent.” In sum, to say Neutral Milk Hotel has influenced indie and indie-rock would be an understatement. They’re very present, still, even years after the release of their album, and after they broke up and basically vanished from the public eye. Though they’re not Nirvana, they’re still fairly prevalent in pop culture, with references to Neutral Milk Hotel showing up everywhere from sitcoms to tiktoks. This, then, begs the question: why? How has Neutral Milk Hotel continued to inspire cultural stereotypes, such as the toxic indie ex-boyfriend trope? What is it about Neutral Milk Hotel that has seemingly transformed the indie genre? Is it their sound, or their songwriting, or both? Or, have they just somehow maintained a cult following so strong that everyone is afraid to argue with their stans? Perhaps these are questions that will never be answered, but regardless, we will attempt to answer them today.
Something that is repeated across all discussions and reviews of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is how evocative the lyrics of this album are. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has often been described as a “kaleidoscope” due to the imagery and sounds it brings to mind. Many reviews I’ve seen have stressed the emotional connective listeners feel not just to any given song on the album, but to frontman and songwriter Jeff Mangum himself. In the third song off the album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” Mangum sings, “and one day we will die, and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea, but for now we are young, let us lay in the sun, and count every beautiful thing we can see,” as mainly the strums of a guitar are heard. And in the sixth song off the album, “Holland, 1945” some of the lyrics are, “the world just screams and falls apart, but now we must pick up every piece, of the life we used to love.” It’s lyrics like this that have caused many listeners to continue to listen to the album even years after its release, and probably what inspired a Salon writer to say listening to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea “feels like a body of mythic experience, animated by some original energy from before the Common Era.”
In a review, Immortal reviews claims that Neutral Milk Hotel not only “gave a new voice” to the indie genre with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but also “brought songwriting to a new level, transcending the personal nature of indie rock at the time.” The band’s distinct sound, created by a strong guitar and vocals and paired with other obscure instruments like the zanzithophone, coupled with their vivid lyrics has made them what they are. Though, to some, Neutral Milk Hotel may sound like any other indie or rock band, that may very well be because they’ve managed to actually define what it means to be indie.