On the Greatness of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: Part I

8 10 2008

This is the first post in an occasional series where I will do my best to provide insight into rock music’s magnum opus, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The title is adapted from Stephen Booth’s article “On the Greatness of King Lear,” from his book King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition and Tragedy. I will assume a basic familiarity with the album. 

Everyone knows that it’s great because of its cohesion, it’s thematic ambition, blah blah blah. What I think will be more fruitful is to do some fairly close readings of the songs, mostly the lyrics but also the music. I may do a few longer posts with more in-depth thematic analysis, but to skim the surface with things like “The tension between the characters is manifested in the relative sloppiness of the performance” is pretty worthless. 

I’ll start with a bit from Oh Comely

The music and medicine you needed for comforting / so make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving / and pluck all your silly strings and bend all your notes for me/ (and) soft silly music is meaningful magical (3:11 – 3:35)

A powerful twenty-five seconds. It is presumably from the point of view of the young observer in King of Carrot Flowers, who makes appearances throughout the album. Equating music and medicine has a precedent; take music as a logos and Gorgias was doing it in antiquity. The interesting bit in that line is that he uses the progressive “comforting” rather than “comfort.” It gives the line a sloppy stream of conscious feel and sense of immediacy. It starts with the past tense “needed,” but the speaker still needs, and will always need, comforting. 

The sexuality aspect of the album is well documented and probably over-discussed, so I won’t go into the next line in too much detail. The important thing here is that he maintains the forward progression from “comforting” to a direct, palpable, presumably comforting action. 

So pluck all your silly strings. Plucking a flower takes virginity, plucking a guitar string can provide a sort of post-coital catharsis. But no one is plucking a flower or a guitar string, the speaker asks someone (a sexual acquaintance? a relative? a close friend?) to pluck all of his / her silly strings. Instead of a word like “silly” cooling down the seriousness of the whole line, it elevates the tension. It’s surrealist imagery that conjures up both youthful and sexual themes. But pluck is also a destructive word. To pluck a silly string is to destroy it. Perhaps the speaker is looking to move on from the obviousness unpleasantness of his childhood situation by destroying (his conception of, his relationship with the concept of, etc.) youth. 

Bend all your notes for me. To bend is to change, notes connote something pure.

Soft silly music is meaningful magical. The speaker is likely in a situation where he cannot blast music from his room. He must listen to it softly or “play” it in his head. Music occupies a special place in the protagonists life; it cannot take on the immediate gravity of his troubled home situation, but it can still be meaningful and magical in its power to just be soft and silly: a quality his parents arguments can never have. 


By the way, this is the best video on youtube:





One response

8 10 2008
Gavin Philips

“Bend all your notes for me. To bend is to change, notes connote something pure.”

I don’t know who wrote this article, but to say that note has some connotation of purity, much less any connotation at all, has got to be a stretch. I can’t believe that. Anyway, there’s no doubt in my mind that In the Aeroplane over the Sea is a great album. I think it’s definitely lacking something, in the same way that the masses of “indie” bands lack something. It’s got all these awesome soundscapes, but no clear melodic direction.

The best track on this record is “Untitled,” just because it totally starts off like an awesome underground hip-hop song would. Gritty, lo-fi organs? YES PLEASE.

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