Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as Secular Anthem

I don’t love a lot of music, but I love Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The album has a dense emotional range and is based on Anne Frank’s lived and imagined life. In times of gladness and sadness, I go back to it and I cry out “Noootch!” to friends when I think we should listen to it together.

The title track sticks with me the most. In an odd way, it feels like a secular anthem, despite it’s focus on death and the afterlife. For secularists, our afterlife is the legacy we leave: our genetic progeny and the reverberations of our choices that echo long after we are gone. Our existence on the Earth is a privilege and one we’re grateful for. And in the end, we’re not that far away philosophically from some of our religious brethren.

Here are the lyrics and what I take away from them:

What a beautiful face I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun
What a beautiful dream that could flash on the screen in a blink of an eye
and be gone from me soft and sweet
Let me hold it close and keep it here with me

We live on a rock orbiting the sun. Everything we love and hold dear could be gone in an instant, as ephemeral as a forgotten dream upon waking. So we hold fast to the beauty we see.

And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see
Love to be in the arms of all I’m keeping here with me.

Despite the absolute certainty of death, we can not let it occupy our minds because all we have are the precious instants and long years of our lives.

What a curious life we have found here tonight
There is music that sounds from the street
There are lights in the clouds
Anna’s ghost all around
Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me
Soft and sweet!
How the notes all bend and reach above the trees.

Well, the mention of a ghost throws off my experience with the song, but I take it metaphorically. Life takes us on curious detours and compels us — begs us, sometimes — to notice the details. The legacy of the dead is all around us. In a way they live, invisibly, like music waves propagating through air.

Now how I remember you
How I would push my fingers through your mouth to make those muscles move
That made your voice so smooth and sweet
And now we keep where we don’t know
All secrets sleep in winter clothes
With one you loved so long ago now he don’t even know his name.

Ah, finally, the topic of so many other songs. The pains, the regrets, the secrets! The controlling, demanding tendencies we direct at the people we love. And yet, we forget the pain. It eventually leaves us, even if we bear its scars.

What a beautiful face I have found in this place that is circling all round the sun
When we meet on a cloud I’ll be laughing out loud
I’ll be laughing with everyone I see
Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.

The song’s cathartic release. Finding love, laughing at the banality, grandiosity and absurdity of life. Meeting on a cloud as an angel? Or as another reverberation that bounced up there from the trees?

And finally, my favorite line: the disbelief at the mere fact of existence. To not be a “not!” To be real, to be able to see and think and feel. To be anything at all in a maddeningly beautiful world.

But hey, maybe that’s just me. Good songs are written to be open to interpretation. (I’m reminded of the creator of Hello, Kitty explaining that the character has no mouth so that children can project their emotions onto her.) But that last line….that last line nails it for me every time. And while I’m sure the sentiment it contains is a subject of many philosophical tracts, it’s distillation here is perfect.

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