Today Pitchfork is featuring a retrospective of Neutral Milk Hotel’s album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which turns 10 years old this year. They have a number of indie-rock luminaries discussing their love (or lack thereof) of the album, so I thought I might take the time to remember how it came into my posession, and how it has remained my favorite album for the better part of the past decade.
These were still the nascent days of the internet, before it became ridiculously easy to pilfer any album in a matter of seconds, and as such the discovery of music was far more of an adventure. As a 15 or 16 year old, I would spend hours in the few secondhand record stores that existed in my hometown, obsessively combing through stacks of albums, often purchasing them based solely on their cover art. During this time, my friend Amanda generally served as a musical bellwether, and it was she who first introduced me to Neutral Milk Hotel. If memory serves, she downloaded a 96kb, static-filled version of “Two Headed Boy,” while she and I were hanging out at my parent’s house. I then proceeded to play the song ad nauseum. I had never heard anything like it. The next week, I had one of the record stores order a copy (which was a chore in itself, considering the album was not on a major label, and that the record store clerk was completely unfamiliar with it.) A week after that, I had it in my hands. This came after the initial release, and as such my copy did not contain the lyric sheet that came with the original pressing (and I believe comes with current copies, as well) — only a cardboard insert with the cover art. And God, what perfectly bizarre art it is — the drum-headed girl in the starry dress, saluting in front of an ocean of bodies and wreckage; the motley crew of parading animals on the back; the Victrola-cum-aeroplane — it was all so surreal, yet seemingly grounded in the same alternate past where these things could, and did, exist. It felt as though the album itself was an artifact of a bygone era, hidden away in some cobwebbed corner, waiting to be discovered anew.
And I suppose that aura is a major reason why the album has resonated so forcefully — it’s not just the music, but the entire package, the mythos that comes along with it. Like Loveless, it is more perfect because nothing has come since. It has become something larger than Jeff Mangum, larger than Elephant 6. Even as it has grown in renown these past 10 years, it still feels like a personal treasure to hold and to play. And that’s the way I like it.