A Deconstructive Reading of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

Nathaniel Smith


Much fan speculation about the 1998 Neutral Milk Hotel album In The Aeroplane Over the Sea has culminated in the popular theory that the album is about Anne Frank and her family. Listeners cite song titles such as “Holland, 1945” and lyrics like “Anna’s ghost all around,” and public instances of Jeff Mangum, the band’s songwriter, alluding to being inspired by dreams of a European family from the 1940s. However, a deconstructive analysis of the album itself reveals that what seems like Mangum’s manifest dream-content about Anne Frank becomes ‘traces’ of meaning pursuant to Jacques Derrida, and listeners find themselves at the center of play between lyrical and musical forces, which give rise to various, contradicting interpretations.

In an alteration to the song ‘Engine,’ an outtake from the recording sessions for Aeroplane, Mangum sings, “For I am an engine, and I’m rolling on/through endless revisions to state what I mean.” This self-referential adjustment to the lyrics confesses Mangum’s struggles to communicate the meanings of his works accurately. With this insight, and Aeroplane’s legacy marked by lyrical mysteriousness, the Anne Frank interpretation becomes troublesome and has less chance for stability as a meaning. While Mangum had before hinted that the songs were possibly about Anne Frank, he now gives reason not to trust his role as guarantor of his songs’ meanings, and attacks his own authority as author.

If the album concerns a Jewish family, lyrics which shout out “I love you Jesus Christ” several times and state that a “world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves left beneath Christmas trees” are problematic, since Judaism generally does not celebrate Jesus Christ or his birth. Further, the instrumentation also stands in contrast to an easy interpretive experience. If the album concerns Anne Frank, it reflects on her death after she has passed, with a sense of longing. But the instrumentation is often wild, rowdy, and unconventional. These arrangements often amount to lively and inventive or bold horn movements, only to contrast with lyrics supposedly about saving a dead girl and her family.

The popular interpretation fans cling to overlooks the peculiar, deliberate oppositions the album establishes, by which it destabilizes itself and evades a single interpretation, and rather invites multiple interpretations. A fixed meaning is elusive with regard to the present contradictions, and any meaning-possibility arises from a Derridean play of the album’s polar forces.


Neutral Milk Hotel, Aeroplane, Deconstruction

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