With the musical bio-film Bohemian Rhapsody currently mushrooming at the box office (despite the generally lukewarm response it has garnered with critics), I felt I had to cover something relevant to this latest hit musical film. But the truth is that there’s surprisingly little of interest to say about the film itself, apart from pointing out its myriad historical inaccuracies (which literally everyone else has already done). So instead, I thought I’d discuss a far richer and more interesting subject…the album that is given the most attention in the film, and indeed is generally regarded as Queen’s Magnum Opus (a few would opt for their heartwrenching swan song Innuendo, but this still remains by far the more common choice for that title). So I give you the album that made Queen the legends they are now…A Night at the Opera.
To start with, don’t let anyone tell you that Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, or the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is the most surreal and incomprehensible Classic Rock album of all time. This album holds that title, hands down. People often joke that the aforementioned albums must have been made on drugs, but I refuse to believe any drugs exist that are powerful enough to produce an album like this. You simply can’t come up with something this insane by accident; you have to be trying.
There is a widespread claim that this record is, in fact, a full-fledged Concept Album. It’s certainly structured like one, with several songs flowing directly into one another, but because no-one has the slightest idea what any of the lyrics mean, this claim has proven to be impossible to definitely confirm or deny. The music, with its heavy influences from Opera and Musical Theater, is richer and more ambitious than any Rock’n’Roll ever heard up to that point (yes, even that of the Beatles), while the lyrics are a mix of maddeningly opaque cryptograms and outright gibberish, the dividing line between which has never been clear. Some of the lyrics do appear to have a concrete meaning (for example, people have more or less figured out that the melancholy “39” tells a story about an astronaut returning from a hundred-year space flight under its layers of confusion), but it’s impossible to know if some of the more indecipherable songs actually mean anything or not.
For example, I have listened to the opening track, “Death on Two Legs”, over a dozen times for this review alone, and I still don’t have the slightest clue what it’s supposed to be about. Then there’s lyrics like “You call me sweet like I’m some kind of cheese” (from the bizarre Rocker “Sweet Lady”), or the utterly insane “I’m In Love With My Car”, which, from the lyrics and presentation, does not seem to be a metaphor…it appears to literally describe a man with an erotic attachment to an automobile.
On top of this, in between the intense Rock music that forms the bulk of the album are inserted three surreal, twee pastiche interludes apparently based on British Music Hall influences…”Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”, “Seaside Rendezvous”, and “Good Company”. Then, apparently just to confuse the audience, we get two fairly straightforward romantic ballads, “You’re My Best Friend” and “Love of My Life”. These songs feature the same intense quasi-Operatic sound as the rest of the album, but in every other respect, they are perfectly normal love songs, and their presence just makes the album seem all the more insane.
Of course, the climax and centerpiece of the album is the immortal “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I’m sure every person reading this already knows the song, but I still want to point out how it goes from sorrow to silliness in an instant during the middle section. It starts as a keening aria that seems to be telling the story of an impoverished young man who kills another man and is condemned to die for it, and then out of nowhere there’s “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” In other words, it goes quite abruptly from parodying tragic Opera to parodying Comic Opera, a transformation that, interestingly enough, does not generally happen in Opera, at least not with this degree of sudden contrast.
However, contrary to popular belief, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not actually the longest track on the album. That would be “The Prophet’s Song”. at eight minutes (to “Bohemian Rhapsody”‘s six). The song, a throwback to the fantasy themes found on the band’s first two albums, contains a gloriously self-indulgent three-minute section where the singers repeat two short phrases ad infinitum in ridiculously elaborate and showy vocal harmonies.
This album is outrageously self-indulgent, brain-breakingly incomprehensible, generally insane, and one of the greatest albums in Rock history. It honestly feels like a Lewis Carroll poem set to monumental music and stretched out to album length. This is what it would have sounded like if late-career Train really had been absurdist geniuses gleefully trolling the entire world (and had made infinitely better music, obviously). Queen would go on to make a number of great albums in the future, including a supposed ‘sequel’ to this album in A Day at the Races, but never would they feel quite an utterly in their element as they do here, and they never topped this one as a pure showcase for them doing what they do best.