Let's say you're in the kind of bar where someone poses a question like "What's the link between Neutral Milk Hotel and R.E.M.?" A correct answer will likely earn you a free beer; an incorrect one results in an evening wearing the joint's strap-on beard of shame.

Get ready to order that beer because we've got you covered.

Neutral Milk Hotel main man Jeff Mangum was the brains behind the artwork for the band's 1996 debut, On Avery Island, but when the time came to work on the cover for 1998's In the Aeroplane, he reached out for help. Kim Cooper notes in her book on the album for Continuum Publishing's 33 1/3 series that R.E.M. sleeve designer Chris Bilheimer told Mangum at some earlier time that if he ever needed a hand to give him a call, and the musician decided to take him up on the offer.

Only five years into his album art career, Bilheimer had built quite a CV. Aside from covers for R.E.M.'s Monster and New Adventures in Hi Fi (and numerous single sleeves for the band), the artist had Green Day's Nimrod and a few Whiskeytown singles in his portfolio. Why Mangum would want Bilheimer's help designing a cover makes sense. But why would the artist take what must have seemed like such a trivial gig at the time? "Grateful for an opportunity to make a living making art, [Bilheimer] was a notoriously easy touch for indie artists needing record covers or poster design," Cooper writes.

The antique postcard that served as the basis for the album's cover. Public Domain image

Bryan Poole, a.k.a. The Late B.P. Helium, told Cooper that Mangum's visual tastes leaned toward "that old-timey, magic, semi-circus, turn-of-the-century, penny arcade kind of imagery." The musician packed up a handful of materials, including books of circus posters and cloud formations and an old European postcard of a few happy swimmers, and headed off to meet Bilheimer.

The two settled on the postcard, which presented an interesting challenge. Mangum had already commissioned an artist named Brian Dewan to draw both a flying Victrola and a magic radio, both of which found their way into the overall In the Aeroplane packaging. The old postcard and shiny new artwork had to look like they belonged together. Bilheimer solved this problem by scanning the back of the postcard, its stains and off-white paper adding an aged look to Dewan's artwork when the two were combined. Cooper notes that "Chris even left a splash of dirt on the postcard – just above the girl's waving hand – a touch that's easily overlooked on the CD cover, but obvious on the larger LP jacket."

Bilheimer's design didn't stop at the album's front cover. He also designed the lyric sheet, artificially aging the paper by wrinkling it up and scanning it. It was during this portion of the project that he asked Mangum what to call one untitled song. When the songwriter noted that he was torn between "Holland" and "1945" as titles, Bilheimer suggested combining the two and a future classic was born.

What makes the album cover such a classic, though, is the transformation of the source material. Replacing the bathing beauty's head with a drum and cropping the image so tightly recasts a mundane early 20th century "greetings from our seaside vacation" postcard as a surrealist painting. Are the cover's protagonists waving at the "aeroplane over the sea"? Are they survivors of a ship (or plane) wreck? Why do the two figures in the background seem distressed?

An early draft of the back cover made use of the bottom half of the postcard, showing the lady swimmer's feet -- an image that would have resolved some of the front cover's ambiguities. Placing the young woman back on her perch atop the pier would have removed some of the magic of the album's sleeve. Perhaps Mangum recognized this; regardless, he rejected the proposed back cover. "I remember almost wanting to start crying," Bilheimer told Cooper. "And I was driving home, thinking, 'I really need to back off and not be so emotionally involved. It's not my record!' I learned a really good lesson about designing. And ultimately I think he made a good decision."

It was a good lesson well learned.  Since In the Aeroplane back in '98, Bilheimer has designed some of the most recognizable album covers in alternative music, including Green Day's American Idiot, Nirvana's With the Lights Out, and R.E.M.'s artwork for their last 20 years. He even reconnected with Neutral Milk Hotel for 2011's career spanning NMH Vinyl Box Set.

We'll give Cooper the last word: "Although In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is not the most famous record Chris Bilheimer worked on, nor the best selling, it remains the design he's most proud of, and it occupies a prominent place in his portfolio, where music industry people regularly exclaim over it."

And that's the thread that connects R.E.M. to Neutral Milk Hotel. Now go collect that free beer. You're welcome.

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