Popular music and the tragic history of Nazi Europe collided before Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House museum and scribbled a hopeful note in the visitors’ book.
But unless you were tuned in to the US lo-fi scene of the mid-90s you might have missed it.
The connection is an album released in 1998 on the Merge Records label, called In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.
The story of this record began a year or so earlier when 27-year-old songwriter and driving force of Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Magnum, picked up a copy of Anne Frank’s published diary. He obsessed over its contents, telling an interviewer: “I would go to bed every night and have dreams about having a time machine and somehow I’d have the ability to move through time and space freely, and save Anne Frank.”
The schoolgirl’s story wasn’t the only subject Magnum composed on, but her life, death and dreamed-of salvation provided a fulcrum for his record. As he sang on the album’s title track: “Anna’s ghost all around/Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me.”
The careening ‘Holland, 1945’ is the album’s apex, with Magnum shifting from the tragic to the transcendental: “Then they buried her alive/One evening 1945/With just her sister at her side,
And only weeks before the guns/All came and rained on everyone/Now she’s a little boy in Spain/Playing pianos filled with flames/On empty rings around the sun…”
The album is an opus of seesawing emotions, crashing lows and explosive highs, a mix of guitars, shouted vocals, brass and marching rhythms. Magnum’s music is not indefinable, it’s just better listened to than described. I doubt Beiber knows much of it but I doubt he’s too down with Anne Frank either.
Turn it up.