In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. At the time, this wasn’t really a massive release of note, but in the ensuing years, it has become an iconic cult album that’s still selling plenty of copies. In 2008 alone, it was the sixth-best selling album on vinyl. And in addition to enduring commercial success, you will frequently find it on all sort of Greatest Album lists. Pitchfork called it the fourth best album of the ‘90s, Paste Magazine had it all the way up at No. 2 in the same category, and Amazon named the second best indie rock album of all-time. April Ludgate-Dwyer of Parks and Recreation loved it so much she wanted to bang Jeff Mangum. In short, people share a very deep passion for Neutral Milk Hotel’s highly lauded sophomore album. But this isn’t about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; it’s about their debut, On Avery Island, released on March 26, 1996.
You might think, given how much people love In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, some of that love would spill over to On Avery Island. After all, if you love one Neutral Milk Hotel album, why wouldn’t you love the other? However, people don’t love On Avery Island, at least not in the same way. It is the “other” Neutral Milk Hotel album. The one that has been forgotten. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s Wikipedia page has a section called “Legacy.” On Avery Island barely has a Wikipedia page.
Why is this the case? It’s not like the albums are drastically different. The sound of both albums are very similar. Logically, it would follow that for somebody to love In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and then to check out On Avery Island. You would think it would garner great enthusiasm, if you were to make a hypothesis, but it just doesn’t. On Avery Island just sort of exists.
There are many reasons this could be. For starters, On Avery Island is matter-of-factly inferior to Aeroplane. This is not to say it isn’t good. It is. There’s a few fantastic songs on the album. “A Baby For Pree” is excellent. “Song Against Sex” is bizarre and cryptic and creepy in that way so many beloved Neutral Milk Hotel songs are. “Naomi” is apparently about the lady from Galaxie 500, and also it’s a great song. However, there are also a few tracks that probably qualify as “filler.” Also, the album ends with a ditty that is more than 13 minutes long called “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye.” It is, simply put, a bit of a chore.
Overall, On Avery Island has the feel of a first album, which is something that even people like Jeff Mangum have to deal with. The album is quieter, and less ambitious than In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It feels similar, of course, due to its weird, cryptic nature and ethereal vibes, but it doesn’t feel, for want of a better word, special. It’s hard to get a sense of what people, at the time, thought of On Avery Island, because, at the time, nobody really cared about Neutral Milk Hotel. More reviews you find are of the ex-post facto variety, people who are going back to dissect the album under the modern, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea venerating paradigm we now live. It should also probably be noted that, aside from Mangum, their debut features an entirely different collection of musicians than the album for which they’re best known.
Aeroplane, while similar to On Avery Island, takes what the latter is doing and synthesizes it into something wonderful. Some of its parts are better than others, but there are no wasted moments. In short, it is an amazing album that deserves all the critical acclaim it gets. That being said, there is a big step up from critically acclaimed to cultishly adored. Lots of albums are loved, but few seem to impact people so much, and so singularly. If it was just a great record people loved, the difference between In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and On Avery Island wouldn’t be so stark. This is where the “story” of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea sets it apart.
Jeff Mangum, the figurehead of Neutral Milk Hotel, is a man who has a cryptic, and often morbid, working quality. Based on an interview he gave with Puncture Magazine, one that is always trotted out when people are discussing the album, Mangum read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time and was overcome with sadness and haunted with nightmares prior to recording In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. This has cemented the theory that the beloved album is about Anne Frank. But to what degree, we don’t know, and this is where Mangum’s mysterious nature probably helped build the legacy of the album.
Now, fans could pore over the lyrics, looking for clues and messages and allusions to Frank or any other hidden meanings. Yes, On Avery Island is cryptic and strange in its own way, but it’s just a series of songs. There is nothing to really grab a hold of, other than the music. The songs don’t speak to anything grander than themselves. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is about something, and, more to the point, something a lot of people understand. Most people know about Anne Frank, and have probably read her diary. They have feelings about her. By potentially being about the young hero, to some extent, there is some meaning and importance placed upon it. It just adds to its mystique, and that helps build a cult.
You know also helps build a cult? Disappearing, which is something Mangum also did shortly after Aeroplane‘s release. The singer basically fell off the map after he stopped touring behind the effort in 1998. Given how strongly people felt about the album, it garnered all sorts of speculation, and people became obsessed with his whereabouts. By going away, Mangum only fed the cult he had built, through no intent of his own. Granted, he didn’t disappear completely: He hosted some radio shows on WFMU and did some sound collages. And he eventually, start popping back up in 2008, but, by then, he had spent a decade in the shadows, further bolstering In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s reputation.
You could argue that Mangum disappearing would also make people want to listen to On Avery Island, in hopes of getting every little bit of Neutral Milk Hotel music they can. However, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea got to be the final album, and the album that pushed their notoriety over the edge.
On Avery Island doesn’t deserve the reputation of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, critically speaking, but the gulf between these two albums is more vast than simple quality would seem to indicate. It deserves more than to simply be the “other” Neutral Milk Hotel album. It’s a good album, with some great songs. Yes, it also has some skippable songs, but that’s not hard in this modern age. What On Avery Island doesn’t have, though, is the lore to build it up to something greater than itself. WW2 and Jeff Mangum combined to make In the Aeroplane Over the Sea into something more than a mere album, and it has nothing to do with the music. If you enjoy In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, give On Avery Island a chance if you haven’t. It’s not as “meaningful,” but it is good. Plus, people aren’t tired of hearing you talk about it yet. The same may not be the case for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.