Neutral Milk Hotel's second album isn't exactly a unanimous classic. A lot of people don't like it at all, with the unrefined sound and Jeff Mangum's even more unrefined voice frequently proving to be a fatal pair of turn-offs. And hey, I'm sure that there are plenty of people who just don't care for these songs, regardless of lo-fi production and hypernasal vocalists.
Still, the people who do like this album...well, they really like this album. Numerous publications (including Blender, Pitchfork, and Q) have included In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in a 'Best 100 Albums' list. The vinyl version is among the best-selling records of the digital era. There's a Neutral Milk Hotel fan page on Twitter with over three thousand followers, and this album's artwork is the page's profile picture. In spite of some people's bafflement, there's still a lot of love out there for ItAOtS, and for the record, my tent is very much pitched in the latter camp, the one where everyone gathers around a campfire each night to show off their ropey cover versions of Two-Headed Boy.
With that said, I am very much aware that this album isn't perfect. And that's what this blog post is for - I'm going to look at the bits of the album that aren't so dazzling in the hope of making the other parts shine all the brighter. And if, in doing so, I end up giving the Hotel Haters yet more fuel for their fire...so be it.
(Incidentally, I don't consider Jeff Mangum's voice to be a negative aspect of this album. Nor do I have any qualms with the production values; I feel that both factors are a huge part of the fun, so if you were hoping for me to hack ItAOtS to pieces on those grounds, you're going to be disappointed.)
Let's start at the end, with Two-Headed Boy, Part Two. This track is often painted as the album's grand, devastating denouement, trumping all that came before. I've seen several people insist that this is the very best song on the disc, but aside from that final reprise of the earlier Two-Headed Boy melody (that, I'll concede, is a superb touch), it doesn't really do much for me.
Let's compare our boys. Two-Headed Boy the first is, for me, the epitome of this album's merits; the melody zips along on a bashed-up guitar, paying no mind to the cracking and straining of Mangum's voice. It is utterly exhilarating. The second part is a lot stodgier, a lot slower, and a lot less thrilling. I think it's a decent closer, but it brings the album to a gradual halt when it could instead have shot into the sky and exploded.
Oh Comely is another track that I've had problems with in the past, although interestingly, that one has grown on me. Again, a lot of people touted it as one of the album's best, and again, I couldn't quite see it - it just sounded like a long acoustic dirge, shorn of the lapel-grabbing melodies and reckless abandon that made the other tracks sizzle. But then, in 2012, I saw Jeff Mangum play live at the Optimus Primavera festival in Portugal, and Oh Comely started making sense. The concert was truly spellbinding, especially given that it was just Jeff and his guitar, and in that live setting, Oh Comely finally became the tense, epic highlight it was always supposed to be.
So I'm far fonder of that one now. I could still stand to lose the instrumental tracks, mind; The Fool is reasonably good fun, stomping along with clumsy menace, and the bagpipey untitled one is hardly unbearable, but they just eat up the time into which Communist Daughter could have extended.
Which brings me to my biggest complaint: why is Communist Daughter so damn short, you bastard?
Seriously - I know it's not as rollicking as Holland, 1945, but the lyrics, the melody, the trumpet solo, it's all awesome. I genuinely think it could have been the album's best song, but it's treated like an transitional track. It gets less screen time than those dumb instrumentals, ferchrissakes.
The only other problem I can think of is the fact that The King of Carrot Flowers, Part One is a bit ho-hum for an opening track. But, if you take all three parts of .The King of Carrot Flowers as one giant song, it's actually a really awesome opener, and the relative 'meh'-ness of part one actually makes a pretty good run-up for the more unhinged parts two and three.