“In the year of ’39 assembled here the volunteers,” opens “’39,” an obscure Queen song, and what follows is a tale of love, loss and modernity, alternately hopeful and despairing, that strikes an unexpected chord in 2019.
First released in 1975 on the album A Night at the Opera and as the B-Side to “You’re My Best Friend,” “’39” is a musical departure for the band, eschewing the their more typical stadium-rock fare and operatic piano ballads in favor of subdued folksiness. Written and featuring lead vocals by guitarist Brian May—who, famously, is also an astrophysicist—the song is about space explorers who depart on a mission and, thanks to a phenomenon known as time dilation by which time moves more slowly in space, return home a year later, only to find that a century has passed on Earth and all their loved ones are elderly or long dead.
Originally written to reflect May’s feelings about being away from home and fascination with space travel, “’39,” initially popular, was poised for greatness, but instead has been largely forgotten. It lacks the showmanship of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the humor of “Fat-Bottomed Girls,” the interactivity of “We Will Rock You” and, of course, the thing Queen is most famous for: the lead vocals of Freddie Mercury, with all their attendant grandiosity. It was used in and then cut from Bohemian Rhapsody. But the nearly 45-year-old song finds a new lyrical life in 2019.
“The Earth is old and gray,” May sings, after the explorers return with “good news of a world so newly born.” Human space travel was still nascent when the song was first released; today, as we struggle to address climate change, interplanetary colonization is being explored as a serious possibility, perhaps even an eventual necessity.
But not all the symbolism is so literal. May has said in interviews that the song was partly inspired by his travels, and how they affected the way he views his hometown. The world has experienced massive political and cultural shifts unimaginable just few years ago. The ideological gulf between generations has likely never been wider. The news is inescapable; faced with the constant drumbeat of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, after just a year, one feels 100 years older. With its major key and somber lyrics, “’39” has always been bittersweet, but it encapsulates what so many of us are, today, feeling so acutely: a nostalgia for simpler times, even as we seek to confront the uncertainties of the future, the inequities of the past, and a society that so often feels on the brink of collapse.
The song always was and still remains futuristic, but it has proved remarkably prescient; it brilliantly encapsulates the fundamental loneliness that modernity has plunged us into. The brave explorers, who on their mission “ne’er looked back, never feared, never cried,” return to a world that devastates them, and they pine for “the land that our grandchildren knew”; technology has torn society apart, and is not yet advanced enough to weave it back together. Despite the soaring, vocative chorus, the song closes on a muted plea of “for my life, still ahead, pity me.” Who, in 2019, hasn’t felt that at some point or another?
It will probably never be one of Queen’s most famous songs, but “’39” proves that as the world changes at an unprecedented pace, the band’s legacy continues to endure and evolve—even in their quieter moments.
Alanna Weissman is a writer, reporter and copy editor from New York City. Her work across genres has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle, Mic, Salon, Barely South Review, Crack the Spine and elsewhere. She is currently an MFA candidate at New York University, and also holds an MS from Columbia Journalism School and a BA in creative writing and studio art from Colgate University.