NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (Merge)

Originally released in 1998, this quasi-conceptual (based, somewhat loosely, on the life of Anne Frank) masterpiece has snuck quietly back to something approaching prominence by being namedropped as an Arcade Fire influence, albeit one that’s lovelier than anything the Canadian collective have yet put their name to.

The three parts of “The King Of Carrot Flowers” shift between what sounds like a child’s-eye vision of suburban ennui (very “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”!) and moments of cloud-vaulting melody. The title track’s an alternately mordant and optimistic singalong, “The Fool” a wheezing, Tom Waits-ian funeral march. “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost” are full-throttled, knockabout avant-rock, “Communist Daughter” lovely but mysterious, with its radio-friendly hookline “Semen stains the mountaintops”. “Oh Comely” is probably the moment where the less patient listener would give up in exasperation; a winding, eight-minute acoustic folk dirge, it’s the album’s “Ballad In Plain D”, and not for everyone. The closing “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two” feels like a heartfelt homecoming and a natural conclusion, even if it’s not entirely clear from the lyrics just why.

“In the Aeroplane Over The Sea” is a consistently delightful, ramshackle patchwork of instrumentation – including such non-rock machinery as a saw, banjo, accordion, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, euphonium, zanzithophone and uilleann pipe – wreathed in radio static like a ghostly precursor to Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, held together by Jeff Mangum’s enthusiastic hollering, which often makes Elvis Costello sound like a bashful choirboy. It’s one of those rare records that exists within its own exquisitely detailed, hermetically-sealed reality, a rickety approximation of the creamy pop of Cardinal and “Odessey And Oracle”-era Zombies.