With Sheer Heart Attack, Queen proved they had the songwriting chops and sense of focus necessary to package their flashy take on hard rock into a bonafide commercial proposition. The next step was to consolidate their newfound popularity: such a task sounds simple in theory but it was tricky in practice for a group with such a complex and ambitious sound. Their budding gift for pop songcraft needed to be pushed to the fore but done in a way that didn’t shortchange the sonic/musical grandiosity the group had become known for.
Thankfully, A Night At The Opera delivered everything its title promises: a singular combination of melody, bombast, high melodrama and showmanship that no other group of the era could conceive of, much less pull off. From the vocal harmonies to hard rock riffery to the baroque pop thrills, this album pushes all of Queen’s newly established hallmarks to the limit – but it manages to bring back sonic gold from each flight of fancy. Even more interesting, it reveals some dark, emotional quality to their sound only hinted at on previous albums.
Side one of A Night At The Opera utilizes the same Abbey Road-esque “whirlwind medley” approach that was used on side two of Sheer Heart Attack, with most of the songs breathlessly following on the heels of the previous entry and the entire side going for a kaleidoscopic array of feels, genres and textures. However, the attractions of this sonic carnival are bigger and bolder this time out, with the pop hooks sharpened up to a shiny gleam. Whether you’re dealing with the campy cabaret of “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon” are being rolled over by the piledriving riffs of “Sweet Lady,” it’s hard not to crack a smile at the proceedings. These guys really put on a show for you.
A few songs on side one deserve special mention. The first is “You’re My Best Friend,” a candy-sweet pop tune that glides along on a plush cushion of harmonies and a controlled but hard-hitting groove sweetened by electric piano and a regal Brian May tapestry of guitars at solo time. It was penned by bassist John Deacon: he was the quiet one of the group but his work often had tremendous emotional depth and it’s on full display in this direct, heartfelt romantic ode. If it doesn’t charm you, check to make sure you still have a heart.
Another gem on this side is “39,” an acoustic number from Brian May. It might sound like a campfire-folk singalong on its surface but pay close attention to the lyrics, which have a surprising sci-fi bent and a memorably bittersweet twist ending.
The songs are fewer and larger on side two. As such, this material represents Queen stretching out to show how far they could take their elaborate sense of style. The heart of this side is a quartet of songs, two by May and two by Freddie Mercury, that find the band’s two dominant members going deeper into the moodier, more melancholy side of their respective muses. The music is no less colorful than the previous side but there is new darkness to its hues, reflecting a depth of emotion that is often overlooked in Queen’s music.
For proof, look no further than Brian May’s “The Prophet’s Song.” Its scenario of religious hysteria and emotional discord came to him during fever-inspired nightmares and the group lays on a thick, creepy atmosphere. The harmonies have a sharp, choir-gone-mad edge to them, the riffs approach a Black Sabbath level of heaviness and Freddie Mercury takes a biting tone as he brings the title character’s fire and brimstone message to life. The end result feels like the evil twin of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” right down to its a-cappella harmony bridge.
May’s other song on this side is “Good Company,” a tune with a jaunty, Dixieland-jazz arrangement created through multiple guitar overdubs. Like “39,” the lighthearted music conceals the emotional turmoil in its lyrics. This time, it’s a quietly sorrowful parable about the perils of romance-induced isolation.
Mercury’s contributions to side two ratcheted up the big emotions to greater heights. The first is “Love Of My Life,” a spare, piano-led ballad that brings in vocal harmonies and a harp at key moments. The result has nothing to do with rock and roll but it’s Mercury’s towering achievement as a writer of ballads, a lost-love lament that paints heartache with stunningly beautiful sense of melodic color.
That said, “Love Of My Life” is eclipsed by Mercury’s other contribution to Side Two – and arguably the most famous of all Queen songs – “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The lyrics represent the final thoughts of a killer on the way to the gallows and Mercury and company throw in everything plus the kitchen sink to give it musical life: moody piano chords, soft/loud dynamic shifts, a weeping-guitar Brian May solo, a heavy metal finale and the lullaby-style vocal harmonies that bookend the song. However, it’s most infamous element is a bridge where the killer’s trial is enacted as a Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta with mountainous layers of choral overdubs.
Simply put, there’s never been anything like “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the history of rock and roll – and no one, not even Queen themselves, has tried to best it for rock-operatic excess. Some are quick to dismiss it as a camp put-on but its invested with a shocking depth of emotion. Like the songs Jim Steinman wrote for Meat Loaf, it’s the height of camp and deadly serious all at once – and Mercury gives it the fitting diva performance of a lifetime, building from plaintive tones to a ferocious roar as he charts the lyric’s intensely emotional terrain. Forget the campy aura that has surrounded this song since it was misused for a gag in Wayne’s World (a curse on your house, Mike Myers). If you meet the song on its own unearthly terms, it has a devastating emotional power that can take you by surprise.
By the time A Night At The Opera reaches its epilogue – a cheeky but appropriately regal instrumental rendition of “God Save The Queen – the album has led the listener through a record store’s worth of styles, emotions and scene changes. There is plenty more that could be explored here – like the brutal kiss-off to the group’s first managers in “Death On Two Legs” or Roger Taylor’s machismo rock-out on “I’m In Love With My Car” – but perhaps it is best to allow the new listener to discover the depth of this album’s charms on their own. Rest assured, you will get what you pay for because A Night At The Opera is the album that assured Queen their place in the rock record books.