My friend Sara gave me a homemade tape once years ago. She didn't really tell me much about what it was, just that she and her oldest friends loved it, and that it would cheer me up. (Musta been feeling down that day.)
I immediately played the tape in my car and it was one of those touchstone experiences music provides that I'll never forget: a feeling of total harmony came over me. The music sounded bizarre, unlike anything I'd really heard before and yet at the same time I felt I had already heard it a thousand times, like it had always been a part of me. I found myself humming along to something I had only just popped into my tape deck.
The music the lovely Miss Sara provided me with was that now-mythic album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. At the time it was a total question mark to me. Who in the heck made this? And how? I would ponder as I drove. That tape became my constant companion, and I loved the music more and more fervently. It sounded like it had come from Mars. Totally otherworldly. My imagination ran wild, and I was completely absorbed in picturing the room where this record was created, and what in the world the person who made it was thinking, how it came to be.
These were the days when not every person on the planet had the internet, and I didn't know anyone who could tell me much about Neutral Milk Hotel at the time. The album seemed like it had been created out of time, and I struggled to learn anything about the people who created it.
Apparently, I was not alone in this, although I certainly felt I was at the time. Years after I first heard it, the album was named the Number One Most Influential Album of 1993-2003 by Magnet magazine, which kind of surprised me when I heard about it. Then suddenly it felt like everyone around me was declaring their long-time love of this record. For some reason I genuinely thought that Sara, her friends and I were the only people who had heard the record. It felt special, as though it was made just for us. It's great when that happens, isn't it?
Turns out, the record was made by one Jeff Mangum and his friends. The best place to learn all about its creation is through the 2005 33 1/3 Book about it, which is simply titled In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and was written by Kim Cooper. After positing this work of genius back in 1998, Mangum promptly disappeared, which is why for so long information was hard to come by. Something I read once offered the idea that this album had cut so close to the truth that Mangum overwhelmed himself and could no longer produce art for the public. I kinda go with that theory. It's been more than 10 years since the record's release and there's word that Mangum is alive and well, living in Brooklyn now, though he has never released anything else.
It's a bit strange after so many years of curiosity about this record and its maker that now you can easily just find a video of Mangum performing, that instant gratification thing. I actually find it a bit sad, although I, of course, enjoy YouTube as much as the next. Now that everything is instantly accessible the deliciousness of the mystery, of those long drives and all those chaotic and inquisitive thoughts sparked by one piece of music disappeared. It's a strange line to dance around, whether to obsessively learn more or just submit to the music itself. I find myself skirting it with most albums I fall in love with.
Regardless, if you don't have this record yet, you gotta get your hands on it.