By Emily McKinney
Last year In the Aeroplane Over the Sea turned twenty-years-old. Still deemed a “polarising cult classic,” the indie-folk album rejuvenates annually to obtain the hearts of new listeners. But why? What’s the appeal? How does it grasp so many new ears?
To put this into context, I first listened to the album four years ago. My recommendation came from ravenous friends claiming to have been ‘moved,’ ‘changed’ and various other cliches. “This is not an album to just listen to,” my friends lectured me. “You really have to listen.” I rolled my eyes at how pretentious they were being, but I did as they recommended. I knew they were anticipating a reaction as momentous as their own, I was prepared to fake it for their sake, but in the end, I really didn’t need to.
The thing about Aeroplane is that you are drawn in by the obscure. The music, while good, is not at the forefront of your experience. Instead, you are somehow forced into researching the album and thereby launched into a museum-esque experience like no other. Take these lyrics, “Anna’s ghost all around / Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me.” Probably lyrics you would typically ignore, but when attached to an album with tracks such titled ‘Communist Daughter,’ ‘Holland, 1945,’ and the eerily alluring ‘[untitled]’ it’s easy to fill in the pieces. I wasn’t sure if I was cheating my own experience by doing this, but when I understood the overarching motif I halted the listening process: compelled to research precisely why an American folk band had chosen such a harsh theme.
As the ‘legend’ stands, the young songwriter Jeff Magnum entered a bookstore and purchased The Diary of a Young Girl. The 72 hours that followed elicited an aesthetic experience like no other. Apparently, Magnum became so overwhelmed by Anne’s diary that he locked himself in his room and cried. With this flood of emotion came the songs for Aeroplane, an album voicing Magnum’s peculiar love-affair with Anne Frank. About this experience, Magnum states: “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.”
Upon researching Magnum’s experience, I was somewhat motivated to have one of my own. I proceeded to listen again. And while lyrics like “and in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying,” or “but then they buried her alive / one evening, 1945” do elicit strong emotions; it’s the production of the album as a whole that affected me.
From the use of a saw in place of singing to the tea-stained ageing of the lyric sheet, Aeroplane encourages an aesthetic experience, and aesthetic exploration, like no other. Even the cover art becomes perverse and distressing when looked at as symptomatic of Magnum’s lyrics. Are the people making a callous and fascist salute or, perhaps more disturbingly, are they drowning and hailing the viewer for help? A viewer who probably feels powerless to help them.
Magnum’s response gives evidence of how domesticated and institutionalised the horror of the Holocaust has become. His reaction is not unnatural. By compelling the spectator to discover the meaning of the cover art, the lyrics and the theme themselves, Magnum ignites an aesthetic experience similar to his own. An experience that could potentially change how you perceive everyday situations, like listening to an album, altogether.