in the aeroplane over the sea (neutral milk hotel, 1998)

in aeroplane

This is one of those songs I imagine playing at my funeral. The other is “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens.

This song might also be my answer to what song is playing when I’m at my happiest1. Well. This or the main title of Star Wars. Come to think of it, the main title of Star Wars would be a pretty good one for my funeral, too. That music more or less played me into the world. Why not out of it, as well?

“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is a love song unstuck in time. Past, present, and future exist all at once. Every verse occurs in the present tense, no matter where in the timeline of love we might imagine ourselves to be. There is only now, and so much of everything that it breaks your heart. Here’s how the song begins: “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.”

The song consists of five verses. Each verse learns from the one that came before it. The second verse imagines that knowing this can’t last forever means we must “count everything beautiful thing we see.” The third verse imagines counting every beautiful thing: light, music, trees. In the fourth verse, love is lost to the past, though we remain in the present. “But now we keep where we don’t know/All secrets sleep in winter clothes/With one you loved so long ago.” In the fifth verse, the song ends back at the beginning, repeating the opening three lines before coming to rest in the wonder of having loved and lost and discovered how much love remains with you still.

For the most part, there are only four chords—G, Em, C, and D—played in that order, in 6/8 time, over and over, for nearly the entire length of the song2. There is only one moment in the song where this changes. The chords shift in the fourth verse to a different progression—Em, C, G, D—and each chord is held for twice as long. It’s almost as if the song, having been trapped in its endless circles, finally finds a way to soar, and in soaring, it doesn’t want to let go. Because of the extended chords, we imagine, along with the song, that it might last forever. That this soaring occurs in the memory of all that’s been lost perhaps tells us something about the song. Or about ourselves. I’m not sure which. Probably it’s both. When we really understand something—whether it’s a song or a book or a film or a person—we usually understand something more of ourselves, as well.

The fourth verse doesn’t last forever, of course. Nothing does. No matter how beautiful it sounds. In the fifth verse, when we return to the old chord progression, when we return to the circling, something of the soaring feeling remains. The song has learned something, I think. And so have we. That it doesn’t last forever is part of what makes it all so goddamn beautiful. It doesn’t hurt any less to understand this. I’m not sure what it does, really. But it’s that understanding, I think, that propels the song to its final line, to its final perfect wonder: “How strange it is to be anything at all.”


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  1. Kathy Nightingale: What’s so good about sad?
    Sally Sparrow: It’s happy for deep people.
  2. Note, these chords I’m talking about come from a version I’ve learned to play on ukulele. They are possibly not the same as actually played in the song. I don’t really know.