Normally, online we at Tribune Towers use the Magnum Opus column to give exposure to classic albums, flagship aural milestones that typified genres. Past instalments have seen multi-platinum selling works getting the praise that they deserve, as well as opportunistic writers spit-shining their favourite dusty aural nuggets for a well-earned airing. However, when the much-coveted chance to write this column was entrusted to me this week, I decided to bend the rules and head down a road less travelled.
The year was 1998. John Frusciante had rejoined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Spice Girls’ death grip on the testicles of the Earth was beginning to slacken, and the Goo Goo Dolls had just unleashed Pandora’s box on daytime radio with that song. The foppish, pointy-toed glory of the indie rock movement was still a decade away, but in a tiny home studio in Denver, Colorado, four unassuming young men were already planting the seeds.
Formed in suburban Louisiana in the early 1990s as a bedroom project for future bandleader Jeff Magnum, the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker first gained recognition with the 1996 full-length On Avery Island. The twelve songs garnered mixed reactions, but Magnum’s cryptic lyricism and oddball use of imagery stirred up enough public curiosity to warrant a proper follow-up. Magnum’s solo project soon became a fully-fledged band with the addition of Scott Spillane (brass instruments), Julian Koster (wandering genie, singing saw, white noise) and Jeremy Barnes (percussion, winged instruments), and in the summer of 1997, the illustrious new line-up decamped to Denver to begin work on what was to become their magnum opus, In the Aeroplane over the Sea.
To label this an indie-rock album would be a lazy approximation of the album’s content and background, an unjust comparison with the thousands of dire guitar bands that flood today’s market. While today’s “indie” acts tend to focus on the banal trivia of everyday life, In the Aeroplane… was destined to be a very different beast. The album’s main lyrical theme centres around Magnum’s helpless sense of grief after reading Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Haunted nightly by the ghosts of wartime Jewish families, of “pianos filled with flames” and of places where “…bodies once moved/ But don’t move anymore”, Magnum’s connection with a dead child from a different time formed a lyrical backbone that jarred with the album’s jubilant bagpipes and horn arrangements. “I would go to bed every night and have dreams about having a time machine and somehow I’d have the ability to move through time and space freely, and save Anne Frank.”, Magnum confessed in a 1998 interview. “Do you think that’s embarrassing?” While his sentiments were not unfathomable, Magnum’s heart-rending reaction book most people have to skim through in secondary school would destroy his credibility in today’s “indie” scene.
When arranging the compositions for In the Aeroplane…, Magnum was content not to deviate from the sound trademarked on On Avery Island. His percussive approach to the acoustic guitar melded beautifully with Spillane and Koster’s brass arrangements and musical saw, lending the songs a kitsch marching-band feel that would be complimented by the album’s 19th century penny-arcade artwork. However, the band’s nostalgic instrumental setup did not suit their low-fi production values. Even on the remastered version, the trademark fuzz bass and hissing cymbals still clash with the wandering trombones and singing saws, while Magnum’s voice crackles in your speaker cones when he reaches for the high notes. For anyone who ever recorded themselves singing in the shower, congratulations for having a bigger budget than these guys.
Upon release, In the Aeroplane over the Sea erased memories of a mediocre debut. The album achieved overwhelmingly positive feedback from all corners of the music press, but it has been with time that its true importance has become apparent. While not strictly an “indie” record as we would recognize it today, In the Aeroplane… has proved to be a lasting influence on many of the scene’s biggest contributors, from Franz Ferdinand to Arcade Fire. When I began this article, I mentioned my intention to deviate from Magnum Opus’ usual formula. As I have explained, the records that get to feature in this column are nothing short of classics that defined the genres they represent. Where In the Aeroplane over the Sea differs is that it cannot be pigeonholed into one genre; Thirteen years down the line, the folk-tinged noise-rock that typified this record has thankfully been left untouched by the millions of dismal bands it helped to spawn. Mumford and Sons also found success in rocking tweed and brass, but it is unlikely that their influence will outlast their fortunes. In the Aeroplane over the Sea may not have the honour of epitomizing a specific musical genre, but in a league of its own, I would argue that it is a truer Magnum Opus than any other.