If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last few months you may have noticed the hysteria taking over the nation regarding the film Bohemian Rhapsody (recently brought to fever pitch with the Oscars and DVD release).
Despite the awe-inspiring soundtrack that runs throughout the film, though, there tends to be a focus on the greatest hits rather than the lesser known tracks that were just as good. Of all these lesser known hits, it is ‘’39’ that I feel has been cheated most as its inclusion in the film would have provided a welcome release from the ballads and anthems that play every few minutes (not that I’m complaining).
The song’s focus is on a galaxy far far away, and its folk inspired melody and Brian May vocals give it an almost War of the Worlds vibe. The song tells the tragic story of an astronaut leaving Earth for what seems to him to be a year, but for earth has in fact been many more. His love, whom he had promised to return for, has grown old and had her own family without him, leaving him alone.
It’s a tragedy on an astronomical level (literally) and yet its melody is anything but sad: a curious contrast if you ask me. The ominous falsetto of Roger Taylor in the instrumental sections gives us hints of the science-fiction, his voice being somewhat similar to that of the cheesy Star Trek intros of the original series. Yet despite this glimpse of humour and mockery of classic sci-fi, the tragedy of the song is inevitable. “Write your letters in the sand for the day I take your hand” is perhaps one of the most heart wrenching lines of the whole song. There is an innocence to the phrase, as though May, or whoever is telling the story, does not realise the swiftness of the tide. Their love is so pure and innocent, his promise to return and provide being an unreachable dream and yet the listener cannot help but hope for a happy ending.
May continues to torture his listeners however with the final chorus, changing the phrase to “your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand.” Just like that I’m completely ruined. When you listen to the song for the first time, be sure to notice the utter lack of hope in May’s voice here when compared to the beginning chorus: it really does break your heart. Indeed, the song is a tragedy almost on the level of Shakespeare and yet I, and so many others, continue to return time after time as though one day the story will change. Perhaps it is the curious lack of Mercury that engages us at first, but by the end I defy anyone who isn’t completely enamored with May and his incredible song.
As someone who absolutely loves Queen and all of their catalogue, I am thrilled to *finally* see this song get some recognition. One of the Doctor’s best contributions to the band. Awesome piece.