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Book Review: Kim Cooper’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

October 22, 2009

I am investigating a bit deeper on the claims of inaccuracy levied against Kim Cooper’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by assorted E6ers, and I will share my findings when I get them, assuming anyone is willing to go on the record with his or her complaints.

For now, I’ll talk about the book as I read it. Keep in mind: this is through the lens of someone who wants to write an E6 book of his own.

33 1/3: IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA

Cooper’s book spends most of its 104 pages speeding through how the Elephant Six Recording Company and eventually Aeroplane came to be and how Neutral Milk Hotel dissolved. That is, but for a few pages reviewing the album song-by-song, it doesn’t waste a lot of time with speculation of intent or analysis of meaning.

This is a good thing. Of the precious little ink that has been spilled about matters E6-related, too large a portion has been idle criticism of the work. Though albums like Aeroplane may be a pinnacle of an individual’s public music career, it is in no way the gestalt of this person’s life. There’s more to it than just what is pressed to vinyl.

In this way, the book succeeds, offering insight into the early days in Ruston, Louisiana, the post-Aeroplane retreat from the public eye and much of what fell in between. I was already privy to much of the content, both from other reading I’ve done (like the fact that the “Holy shit!” at the end of “Oh Comely” is a reaction, possibly from Neutral Milk Hotel horn player Scott Spillane, to the fact that Jeff Mangum played the song all the way through in a take that was supposed to just be a test to get the recording levels set) and from conversations I’ve had (like the way the tours during the Elephant 6’s heyday rarely featured any kind of stasis, with a different band headlining each night and everyone helping out with each other’s sets), but there is still plenty of information in there I hadn’t known before. Through interviews with several people close to what was happening, Cooper shows how it evolved and what it felt like to be a part of the process.

Still, the book feels a bit shallow, rushing through decades of stories in what ultimately feels like a few magazine articles. Given the contraints of such a short book, Cooper’s scope is too broad. By trying (admirably) to include so much context about the album’s creation, it never really digs deep enough to elicit any kind of sincere connection not already felt beforehand. While I know a little more about Mangum and NMH and a bunch of other people and places, I don’t really feel anything new. Even for a work of non-fiction, that should be a goal.

Of course, as someone as invested in these bands as I already am, that’s a fairly tall order, but this was certainly not a book meant for mainstream consumption. It was written by a fan, for fans. Given that it requires some kind of connection before reading, it’s not unfair to hope for more depth than Cooper offers.

My other primary criticism is the reverent, almost funereal tone of the book. Though published in 2005, only seven years after Aeroplane‘s release, it discusses the album, the tours, the experience as though it were a relic from another century. Perhaps this is why emotional attachment is so hard to come by: rather than reading about a contemporary artist, one feels as though he is reading about Benjamin Franklin or Johannes Gutenberg, though this is almost undoubtedly in part because Mangum himself declined to be interviewed for the book.

While Cooper’s book is an interesting and engaging read, it is sadly too cursory to be any sort of canonical Elephant Six resource. Instead, it is another brick in a too-small wall of E6 insight. There is, fortunately for me, plenty left to build.

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