33 ⅓ is a series of books; in each a journalist takes on writing about the creation an album. I read one on Neutral Milk Hotel’s Aeroplane recently, by Kim Cooper.
The first time I heard anything from the record was at an open mic night in high school, where a ginger-singer-songwriter belted out the title track. I thought it was alright, but I didn’t even get to the rest of the album until college, I was probably too busy listening to Quadrophenia. Even then, it never “clicked” too hard for me.
That being said, I’ve given it some legitimate listens while reading the companion book, and enjoyed myself. The musicians and scene surrounding NMH created a nurturing music culture I appreciated reading about.
They would start bands, write songs, record “albums,” dub them onto cassettes, draw cover art and then circulate these little objects within their own small world. They didn’t seek outside approval by sending copies to record labels, and the few copies that did sneak out into the greater world were probably baffling.
A side-effect of globalization is a notion of everything needing to be shared and connected; food you make is an Instagram opportunity, the application you record music with has a Facebook share button built into it. Its refreshing to imagine and participate in situations where there is no expectation of success past the here-and-now; art for art’s sake.
Which also explains why Jeff Mangum left the band after their first tour in support of the album, in part because he didn’t know how to deal with the attention of overzealous fans’ idolatry.
It is a bit peculiar. I’ve met my fair share of people who love this album, and I’ve always thought it a bit surprising. Kids who would put on Holland 1945 at a house party and start some kind of faux mosh pit. Hey I probably danced with them, I can’t hate. Well, there’s the overtly religious and historical sentiments which other songwriters barely touch, while Jeff Mangum whisks from World War II through the afterlife with ease.
There’s also that turn-of-the-century aesthetic: brass-heavy, accordion-laden tracks with whimsical lyrical content belted out with the fervor you’d imagine a vaudeville musician would bring. Not to mention the cover art. It was a compelling suggestion that this aesthetic was an influence for bands like the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire.
It’s probably what Pinkerton was for me, for these people that fell for this record. Maybe I didn’t have the personality type to fall for it. But I like it.