Sunday, July 24, 2011
A death, a reunion, an album
When Freddie Mercury died in 1991, it seemed like Queen's new studio output was basically over. After all, how could you try to move on without a man who was not only a consummate performer and top-tier vocalist, but also was arguably the most important songwriter in the group?
Mercury's passing was undeniably tragic for the band and its fans. Succumbing to bronchopneumonia one day after acknowledging that he had AIDS, Mercury's powerful voice and dramatic musical flair was now silent.
Or so it seemed.
After Mercury's death, his band mates (drummer Roger Taylor, guitar wizard Brian May and bass player John Deacon) went their separate ways to work on projects and grieve in their own ways. What fans didn't know was that the group still had some songs that Mercury had worked on (vocal works, mostly) that they hadn't fleshed out for release yet.
In 1992, the movie "Wayne's World" came out and "Bohemian Rhapsody" gained a new audience and Queen surged back into the spotlight. Most groups would have killed for that level of exposure and the whetted interest of a new audience, but Queen had their own event to take care of: The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness. Obviously, the show was done to honor Freddie, but all proceeds went towards the creation and funding of The Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charity organization that helps fight AIDS worldwide.
After the concert, the band again went on hiatus as individual projects and interests took precedence. But eventually the surviving members regrouped to tackle Freddie's last works. Combining these last works, some unreleased tidbits from earlier eras and reworking some of Freddie's solo songs, the group managed to piece together enough content for one more album: "Made in Heaven."
"Made in Heaven" bears the marks of a band dealing with the death of their friend and fellow musician. Many of the songs relate to death, life, heaven, etc. Mercifully, though, they aren't glum or depressed songs. Rather, many of them are energetic or earnest and full of love and hope.
Before going into the album itself, I think it's important to recognize that the United States had basically stopped caring much about Queen long before this point. After the "Hot Space" album, the band's following started to dry up. But it took "The Works" album for U.S. listeners to drop Queen (the album is actually pretty good, but it didn't appeal to the popular music of the time - and the cross dressing video for "I Want to Break Free" didn't exactly win them much praise here, either).
After "The Works" came their Live Aid performance (still ranked by critics and fans alike as one of the greatest rock and roll shows ever), the "A Kind of Magic" album (kind of a soundtrack to the movie "Highlander"), the "The Miracle" album and "Innuendo." All were met largely with indifference here, with sales and criticism tapering off.
So there wasn't much expectation for greatness in the U.S. when "Made in Heaven" came out in 1995.
First of all, the Beatles had already recently covered this ground the previous year with the release of "Free As a Bird" (and the later release of "Real Love"). The world had already seen a fallen musical idol be reunited with surviving band members, and many saw "Made in Heaven" as riding on the coattails of John Lennon and the Fab Four. Too many dismissed the album as a gimmick.
For those who chose to ignore "Made in Heaven," well ... they missed out on a great album. It doesn't rock along the lines of "We Will Rock You," and it doesn't have all the artful flourishes of "Bohemian Rhapsody." But it has great guitar solos, moving vocals and impeccable instrumental beds. Did you like the classic "Someone to Love?" Well, give "Let Me Live" a shot. Did you appreciate "Who Wants to Live Forever?" Maybe you'd dig "Too Much Love Will Kill You."
As much as I love and cherish the first several Queen albums (in fact, out of their 15 studio albums, I'd rate 10 or 11 of them very highly), I tend to find myself reaching for "Made in Heaven" more often than most of them. It suits my mood better. There's thankfulness, there's determination, there's joy and desire and wistfulness. It's not as adventurous as "Killer Queen," but it's as rewarding in its own way.
When I first bought this album, it was a used copy from Hastings (a book/movie/music/software store, kind of like a Best Buy). I owned "A Night at the Opera," "News of the World" and "A Kind of Magic," as well as a couple of the hits compilations. I hadn't heard of this album, and none of the song titles looked familiar. As it was used, and cheap, I thought I'd give the album a chance. It was one of the best whim purchases I've ever made.
01 - It's a Beautiful Day
The album starts off softly, as the synthesizers and instruments start off just barely audible and build up to Freddie's hammering of the piano keys. His near-breathless vocals add an air of passion (and perhaps a bit of desperation) to the sound. The song continues to build, with a restrained orchestral feel that hints at the power and glory just simmering to be let out. That feeling seems to be the perfect embodiment of Freddie Mercury. Everything about the track is exquisite, and the song hooked me instantly. It remains one of my absolute favorite Queen songs.
02 - Made in Heaven
The title track of the album is a remake of a Mercury song that appeared on his first solo album, "Mr. Bad Guy." The band kept the original vocal track, but stripped away the original instrumental tracks and added their own performances for an undoubtedly superior version. When Mercury first recorded the song in 1984, he was still quite healthy (and had probably not contracted HIV/AIDS yet). Thus, the song shouldn't be read as a dying man's outlook. Instead, it's a wonderful and sincere performance with a great guitar solo and the typical Queen gusto.
03 - Let Me Live
One of the absolute highlights of the album is this lively gospel number (remember "Someone to Love?"). The band all contribute to this track, with Freddie, Brian May and Roger Taylor trading the lead vocal. Backup singers provide the gospel choir sound, and the music contributed by the band rocks and grooves flawlessly. The track has roots in a collaboration with Rod Stewart back around 1984, but the track was never finished. Stewart's vocals were removed (though Roger's voice sounds so much like Rod Stewart that I've long wondered if Roger just mimicked Stewart's lines) and the track was developed for the "Made in Heaven" project. It's simply a stunning song, epic in the traditional Queen fashion. That big, lush vocal performance that tapers off with some simple piano notes ... Fantastic.
04 - Mother Love
This song was one of the last songs on the album to grow on me. I wasn't a fan of the lyrics, and it was just so moody. Especially coming after such a celebratory song as "Let Me Live," I found "Mother Love" to be a downer. But the song is important on a couple of levels. First, it was the last time that Freddie and Brian collaborated on a song during Freddie's lifetime. Second, the Freddie vocals of the first couple verses are the last ones he'd record before his death. His final work was done on this song. (Brian sang the last verse, as Freddie was too sick and had returned home for his final days.) It's taken some time, but I've grown to like the song. Freddie's vocals are pretty impressive, especially with the knowledge that the man couldn't stand without intense pain, much less deliver his vocals with as much power as he demanded of himself. As his final performance and last recorded work, it is a necessary and worthwhile track ... even if the murky, funky arrangement brings some darkness into the album.
05 - My Life Has Been Saved
A lighter song, especially after the previous "Mother Love," this track is basically a reconfiguration of a B-side from "The Miracle." There really isn't a whole lot of meat to this song. Lyrically, it's pretty simple. The theme is "hey, things are horrible, the news is always bad ... but I'm thankful because I've found faith." If Freddie's vocals didn't sound so committed and sincere, it'd come across as some cheap born-again tune. Instead, it's a pleasant song that holds up to repeat listenings.
06 - I Was Born to Love You
Another remake of a Freddie Mercury solo number, this song gets the album back on track. And again, this remake is superior to the original version (though both songs in their original form are good songs and enjoyable, in their own right). This arrangement is much more "rocking," with Brian May letting loose with some great guitar. This song would have sounded right at home on "A Kind of Magic" or "The Works," preserving the Queen identity. The band's sound jells and Mercury's vocals, which were just plunked down over the new backing track, really take on the energy of the new arrangement. It's a killer track and would have been a joy to see/hear live.
07 - Heaven for Everyone
I love everything about this song. The cool reserved arrangement, the vocal work, the tone, the lyrical matter. Again, it may seem to be related to Freddie's condition, but the song predates his death. It was written by drummer Roger Taylor around the time of the "A Kind of Magic" album, before the band had any idea that Freddie was ill. Taylor recorded a version of the song with his band, The Cross, and Freddie guested at a session and recorded a vocal for The Cross at the time. So there were two versions, one with Roger on lead vocals and one with Freddie on lead. May, Taylor and Deacon took Freddie's vocals and recorded a new backing track (which is the same treatment they gave to the Mercury solo tracks) and made a Queen song out of it. It's one of the great later Queen message songs, mellower than "One Vision" but in that kind of vein. This song got singled out for inclusion on the "Absolute Greatest Hits" remastered collection that came out a couple years back. It definitely merits the attention.
08 - Too Much Love Will Kill You
I love Freddie's performance on this song more than I like the actual song itself. That's not a swipe at the quality of the song, but I've heard different versions (some featuring songwriter/guitarist Brian May) and they just don't soar. The song was written sometime between 1986 and 1988, but it didn't get a public unveiling til the Concert for Freddie when Brian performed it at the piano. Brian then included it on his "Back to the Light" album. But what the song needed was help from Mr. Mercury. Freddie's voice, his sincerity and the energy and zest he puts into the song really elevate the track. The Queen version is easily the definitive version, and it fits in nicely as a power ballad on this album.
09 - You Don't Fool Me
If you're a fan of funk and 1982's "Hot Space" album is a favorite, maybe you'd love this song. But for me, I've never been a fan of this style of music. It's not that Freddie and Queen can't pull it off ... they can. But the style has never interested me, and this track is my least favorite on the album. It's a hodge podge recording; Freddie had some scat vocals and little odds and ends sitting around, and Queen's co-producer kind of stitched them together and added overdubs and elements to flesh out a real song. Queen heard it and took it over, adding instrumentation and other bits and pieces to create this song. Really, it's quite convincing as a band performance and shows how good studio creations CAN work. But it's just not to my tastes.
10 - A Winter's Tale
Oh, what a killer song. Don't look for rhymes or killer vocal gymnastics or complex productions. In some cases those are available, but they aren't the point. Instead, listen to the lyrics and really hear Freddie's voice. His energy. His excitement. This was his last song, the last song he'd ever write. He didn't live long enough to do much work on it, but he completed all his vocal parts for it and gave the band some general instructions on what he wanted. Apparently the scene he describes is from his home view in Montreux, Switzerland. It's gorgeous. And folks, on this song, HE KNEW HE WAS DYING. Yes. Of all the songs about life, death, heaven, much of that is happenstance (not all of it, but much of it). But this one was actually written and sung with the very acute knowledge that he'd be dead before the song would be released. And there's nothing sad about it. There's nothing morose or morbid. He sees something beautiful and enchanting and wants to share that. If that strength and that love of life doesn't affect you, I question your heart. I love the "am I dreaming / am I dreaming?" refrains.
11 - It's a Beautiful Day (Reprise)
The album draws to a close (or does it?) as it began - with this song. This arrangement differs, however, in that it's a full band version. You get the drums, guitars, bass, piano and all the vocal bits. It rocks. It has a beat. Whereas the first version is more orchestral and ethereal, this is much more alive and kicking. It's how Freddie liked to do things, with a good beat and a groove you could shake your butt to. I prefer the first version, but this reprise is enjoyable and adds some rock to the album. But just as you think it's ending ...
12 - Yeah
That's all there is to this track. "Yeah." One word. It's four seconds, and it's a sample taken from Queen's song "Action This Day" from the "Hot Space" album. It's the shortest track in the Queen released collection, and there's really no reason for it to be here. I guess Queen just wanted to have fun with the formats. If you listen to "It's a Beautiful Day (Reprise)" and it DOESN'T have "Yeah" tacked at the end, it ends pretty abruptly. It's just weird. But not necessarily as weird as what follows next.
13 - Untitled
This weird synthesizer/ambient sounds/processed audio track is a whopping 22 minutes (apparently in homage to the 22 years between the release of Queen's first album and this, their last as a Freddie Mercury-centered band), and is arranged in movements that correspond with certain moments throughout their careers/lives. It has echoed vocals and samples bits of "It's a Beautiful Day," but it's heavily processed. It's a very strange track, but it's oddly compelling and actually not a bad listen. Some believe the track is supposed to follow Freddie's life and death and his journey to heaven (at the end, a voice that kind of sounds like Freddie's says the word "fab"), and members of Queen haven't denied that intent. Anyway, it's a long track that most may not have the patience for ... but it's worth at least one listen. I like to listen to it in the dark, with headphones, and I just let my mind wander. It's an unusual way to end the album, but it suits the nature of the album.
When the album was released, it did very well worldwide (and made the top 60 on the U.S. charts, which was pretty good for the band by this point). In many markets, it even rose to the No. 1 spot. Not bad for a posthumous release, and certainly not bad for a collection of songs that ranged from vocal fragments to remakes to rescued outtakes.
Time hasn't been terribly kind to Queen's later works. Their earliest albums tend to be regarded as the classics, their middle albums tend to get regarded as the "at the top of their game" albums, and their later albums tend to get lumped into the "been there, done that" kind of mentality. But the truth is that all the Queen albums have good qualities, and many have some unfortunate qualities. The later catalog is just as important and vital to Queen's development, and the quality is often on par (or greater) than the stuff they released when critics and U.S. fans alike were enchanted by Queen.
"Made in Heaven" is at times soothing, at times heartwarming, at times heartbreaking and at times a little overblown or unnecessary. But all of those traits are hallmarks of the Queen sound and legacy. I do believe Freddie would have wanted his last work to shine, with the pomp and circumstance (remember me using this description earlier?) that he so naturally and comfortably affected. And his surviving band mates pulled it off and put together one of the most endearing and worthy entries in the collection.
Give the album a chance. At the very least, you'll hear Freddie Mercury doing what he did best. At the most, you'll find an album to love. That's the kind of gamble we can all afford to take.