Anne’s ghost was all around…before Bieber

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 Diary of A Young Girl.

The Diary of A Young Girl

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.”

Holland, 1945

Holland, 1945. CD single cover art.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Anne’s ghost was all around…before Bieber

  1. Interesting bit of info; I’m a huge fan of the record and did not realise there was any connection. Just heard they’re reuniting for a short tour but so far no plans to come here. At least we got to see Jeff last year!

  2. Stacy says:

    Interestingly, I was literally obsessed with Anne Frank at about age 11-12, dreaming about her and pouring over her diary, WWII history and schematics of the attic. Reading Anne’s diary is what inspired me to start one of my own at the time, and some of my first entries are embarrassingly similar in style and tone. I like to believe that’s pretty standard fare for pre-teen girls who read. Of course then later I was obsessed with “Aeroplane” after having been introduced to it by my brother when I lived in Austin. I would drive around and listen to it (on cassette!) whenever I didn’t want to return to my lonely apartment. Thanks for the lovely entry on an amazing album.

    As for Mr. Bieber, the only similarity I find he has with Mr. Magnum is that both “Justin” and “Jeff” start with J.

    • I remember you telling me about driving round Austin blasting the album Stacey. I missed NMH completely in the 90s, the first time I heard of them was when to it until Clare played me the title track a couple of years ago. It’s a completely unique album, sonically and otherwise. The producer Robert Schneider deserves a mention. His heroes were Spector and Brian Wilson, hence the (lo-fi) wall of sound on most of the tracks.

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