Neutral Milk Hotel’s second full-length album is an unsettling travelogue torn between melancholy and glee, futilely racing to reach a sun that’s always setting. It’s as if bandleader Jeff Mangum concocted the whole thing alone in his car, in the middle of nowhere, his connection to the outside world limited to faraway oldies, Paul Harvey, and a bunch of old-time religion on AM radio. Contemplating the meaning of life barely keeps him awake, so he cracks the window and begins to howl about anything that pops into his head.
Although Neutral Milk share a love of simply recorded pop with their Elephant 6 brethren — Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control — Mangum’s quasi-mystical, Donovan impulses distance him from the Apples’ Starburst melodies and Olivia’s psychedelic lollipops. He wants to be the Sundown Superman, the cross-legged troubadour of the low-fi set. Certainly, he’s capable of trips, fuzzed-out messing around (“untitled” sounds like the Beatles’ “Flying” recorded on a fishing boat with a motion-sick tuba), but Mangum has moved beyond the four-track sonic debris of Neutral Milk’s last album On Avery Island.
Unlike On Avery’s closetful of noise, Aeroplane, produced at the Elephant 6 eight-track studio in Denver by Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider, features sing-along ’50s-style melodies, lots of acoustic guitars, and breathless, often tortured vocals. Sprinkled with Robyn Hitchcock fairy dust (the lyrics reference radio-equipped Siamese twins and dysfunctional Cold War adolescents), Aeroplane’s cut-and-paste pop songs are darkly comic and wonderfully wide-eyed. On the title track, Julian Koster’s otherworldly singing saw and Scott Spillane’s flugelhorn accompany a bouncing-ball melody fit for Dion and the Belmonts. And when the band veers off into attention-deficit-disordered detours like “The King of Carrot Flowers,” a self-indulgent, three-part musical suite that plays like an existential nursery rhyme, Mangum keeps you fixed on his every bewildered word. Especially when he confesses at the song’s chaotic conclusion: “I will shout until I know what I mean.”