Wednesday, October 5, 2016

1998- In an Aeroplane Over the Sea

Was Jackson Pollack any good? Abstract Expressionism in itself is an enigma, but the question about Pollock is one that we've asked for nearly 70 years, mostly without satisfaction: "I could have done that!"

"Yeah, but you didn't."

In his review in Allmusic, Jason Ankeny wrote, "Lo-fi, yet lush, In An Aeroplane Over the Sea is either the work of an utter genius or a crackpot."  He could have written the same thing about Pollock.  The truth, he concluded, is "somewhere in-between."

We're still arguing about Pollock, and that kind of argument is what keeps me intrigued and watchful of In An Aeroplane Over the Sea.  It's funny that I'm still not sure.  I'm sure about Pollock.  Art has a social context and response to popular culture.  Warhol's response was to grasp the broader picture of corporate design.  Pollock's was simple rebellion, but there was more.  He wasn't just slapping paint on canvas, he was purposefully aiming for something different, and there was method to it.  He'd lay out his huge canvases on the floor of the studio and the action of painting, the process, the alcohol, the women, the cigarette ash, were an inherent component of the painting itself.  The fact that Pollock died tragically in a seemingly suicidal automobile accident, taking a stranger along with him, fits right in with his scenario as a part of the process.

Certainly Jeff Magnum isn't Pollock, but Neutral Milk Hotel and In An Aeroplane Over the Sea remain an enigma.  I still don't know if it's any good, but I keep going back. Aeroplane is a masterpiece of songwriting and musicianship (there's a saw, after all, which I can't even say about the Decemberists).  The distorted guitar juxtaposed with saccharine melodies and transcendental lyrics are so abstract that they make Cocteau Twins seem coherent. Magnum's off-key crooning matches the earnest soul-searching acoustic guitar in "Two Headed Boy" and "Communist Daughter,"  but for pure rock rapture, "Holland, 1945" is a rarity, particularly for the nineties.

Magnum's view of romance is an ambiguous dream-like love affair, not far removed from the album graphics. Consider the phrase "This is the room one afternoon I knew I would love you and from above you how I sank into your soul" or "Your dad would throw the garbage all across the floor as we would lay and learn what each other's bodies were for." Having the courage to rhyme with innocent boyishness makes these mature ironies all the more affecting. In "Two Headed Boy, Part 2," Magnum settles on the prettiest chord resolution to voice the sadness of his desires: "In my dreams you're alive and you're crying." It's folk-punk pre-emo ecstasy.

I'm to the point when I can say with confidence that Jason Ankeny was wrong; this guy is no crackpot.  The question I have is, where the hell is he?  Usually a potential 10 has real presence, if not onstage then in the studio; not Jeff Magnum.  With the exception of some high profile appearances, and a 2014 reunion tour, Magnum's a virtual no-show.  It's just this one record we've got to go on, great as it is. 

So why? So many of you will question how it made the list. Simple: 1998 was a musical disaster and Aeroplane is the questionable standout. It makes the list more for being revolutionary in its role as the influence for the stand out acts to follow: The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie or even Beirut for that matter. Arcade Fire's cites the LP as one of his guiding influences and Jesse lacy (Brand New) called it "The greatest record ever written." Like The Velvets debut, Aeroplane inpired a gajillion bands for the new millenium. Good enough.