If you dig around a little, you'll find more than a little method to Mangum's madness. Although he's grown rather tight-lipped when it comes to expounding on the stories swimming in the prose of In the Aeroplane, he gave up some quickie plot sketches to Denver's Westword last year while the album was still being recorded. "One of my new songs ["Oh, Comely"] talks about Siamese twins freezing to death in the forest," he said. "One is saying, `Don't worry. We've been attached forever, and we'll end up in someone else's stomach together anyway.' "
Of "Two-Headed Boy," which is broken into two nonadjacent parts on the album, he said, "it's about a two-headed boy who makes a magic radio for his girlfriend, but then she breaks it. It's also about the end of the world, and he's in a jar, and you can't really tell if he's on display or real or not. But it's also kind of like his dreams. At the end, everything he's ever wanted is in these packages under a Christmas tree in the snow."
These kinds of scenarios can be a bit difficult to follow in any kind of linear way. Time, place, and identity stay fluid on In the Aeroplane -- the narrative settings can jump halfway around the world, or 25 years back in time, in the course of a few lines. "The album takes place in the past and the present," says Mangum. "But for me time is kinda weird anyway. I don't think I'm in the now very much. A lot of what we base the now on culturally -- I feel pretty out of it most of the time. I live in an insular world. I surround myself with old records and weird shit; I forget that most kids these days don't know what a vinyl record is. So it freaks me out."
To make things even more complicated, some of the album's narrative lines are sustained over the course of several different songs, with slight variations in character. You'd have to know that the brother of one of Mangum's friends committed suicide to figure out certain connections. The dead brother haunts a ferris wheel in "Holland, 1945." And he lurks on "Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two," which begins as a father's lament for his son in the third person, then switches to a brother's lament in the first person: "You left with your head filled with flames/And you watched as your brains fell out through your teeth/Push the pieces in place, make your smile sweet . . . And in my dreams you're alive."
Almost all of Mangum's characters are united in some grief or another, trying to surmount an inexorable sadness. Although In the Aeroplane touts the endless, infinite recyclability of the human spirit -- the promise of reincarnation as a dream, or a tune that won't leave your head, or as a literal fact -- it is also obsessed with what happens to those left behind. So it is also an album about the need to remember, the fear of forgetting -- and the tricks memory plays.