By Chelsea Spear
If In the Aeroplane Over the Sea were a child, that child would be entering middle school right now. That the landmark album turned eleven in February of this year is a bit unbelievable. It certainly doesn’t sound as though it’s been around for that long. Some of the album’s elements, like its tarnished brass-band arrangements and intoxicating, passionate vision sounded out of step with the detatched irony of indie rock in 1998, while others—like the evocation of Anne Frank and the rich melodies—were simply timeless.
Aeroplane was an instant classic in the indie rock genre on its release, but its stature has only grown over time. The album remains one of the best selling titles in the Merge catalog and is the eighth best-selling vinyl LP, and many of its songs have been covered by everyone from Brand New to Jeff Tweedy. While Jeff Mangum has left music for more personally enriching pursuits, many artists have stepped into the breach to record a follow-up. Even if you haven’t heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, your record collection probably houses some of Jeff Mangum’s descendants. Herewith are five artists who have endeavored to continue in Aeroplane’s jet stream.
The Arcade Fire
Win Butler set Merge Records as his first choice record label for his critically acclaimed ensemble The Arcade Fire because of the label’s connection to Neutral Milk Hotel. At first, the common denominators between the bands might appear minimal. Neutral Milk Hotel, after all, was a primitive-sounding band that eschewed the spotlight. The Arcade Fire came out of the gate sounding and looking polished and professional, toured prolifically, and courted celebrity fans like David Bowie, David Byrne, and the asshat from Coldplay. However, a closer listen reveals a band that’s taken the memorable melodies of Mangum’s songs and retained his ambitious vision, while divesting it of some of the things that made it stand out, both for good and for ill.
Like Aeroplane, the Arcade Fire’s debut album Funeral opens with a suite of songs about absent friends, and Regine Chausagne’s haunting ballad “Haiti” describes her family’s life under the rule of the dictator Duvalier. The album’s cream-colored CD gatefold even looked a little like a sleeve for a lost Elephant 6 album. Butler, however, had the last laugh: not long after its release, Funeral outsold Aeroplane and became the top-selling album in the Merge catalog.
If The Arcade Fire were the most commercial of Neutral Milk Hotel’s antecedents, The Decemberists were the group to whom most NMH fans defected. Castaways and Cutouts, the quintet’s first LP, hit record-store shelves five years after Mangum sang “Two-Headed Boy Pt. II” and put down his guitar for the last time. From the opening bars of Castaways’ opening track “Leslie Ann Levine”, a NMH influence was palpable: lead singer Colin Meloy sang a ballad of a dead girl in a reedy voice with a slight British accent over chiming guitar chords. The album walked a line between menace and whimsy rarely heard since the release of Aeroplane, and frequently drew on arrangements of instruments also rarely heard on contemporary indie pop records. Many fans of NMH joined Team Decemberists with a feeling of guilt, as though they were “cheating—not on somebody I was ever actually in a relationship with, mind you, but on a goddamn album,” as Salon.com columnist Jesse Jarnow put it.
Other former fans of NMH derided the superficial similarities between the bands and Meloy’s singing style, which to these ears sounded less like Jeff Mangum and more like a kid from the Midwest who was trying to sing like Morrissey. Some of the Decemberists’ most ardent followers felt alienated by the band’s eventual careerist streak, as the band’s accountant was profiled on NPR and the band jumped from unimpeachable indie label Kill Rock Stars to corporate behemoth Capitol Records, with Meloy denouncing file-sharing fans in his wake. The jump to a major label allowed the Decemberists’ epic streak to flourish grandly, as they released two massive albums inspired by Chinese and Celtic mythology: The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love. Their sound has evolved away from the intimate literary catharsis that inspired its initial comparisons and into a sound that evokes both Hawkwind and They Might Be Giants.