It has been 40 years since Queen released their definitive masterwork A Night at the Opera, and the world of rock has never looked quite the same. With the album reaching its 40th anniversary last week, I decided it would be a great time to dive into what is arguably my personal favorite rock album of all time.
The album opens on a viciously cathartic note with “Death on Two Legs,” allegedly lead singer Freddie Mercury’s hate letter toward Queen’s ex-manager. It could also just be seen as a really nasty ode to an ex-friend or lover (the male references throughout would even be keeping in line with Mercury’s homosexuality). Musically, it’s about as epic an opening as you could ask for. The melding of the piano with electronic beeps shows off the blend of old and new the band proved so adept at. Mercury’s voice drops in with an angry growl and doesn’t let up. And check out some of these lyric lines: “now you can kiss my ass goodbye.” “You’re a sewer rat encased in a cesspool of pride.” It’s a brutally efficient little number.
“Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” provides an immediate and jarring tonal shift, but don’t let the frivolous nature of the subject matter fool you—this is one brilliant little one-minute track. I love Mercury’s deliberately British-sounding vocals and Brian May’s lean guitar solo.
“I’m in Love with My Car” is the album’s most traditional-sounding rock song, with drummer Roger Taylor on vocals. His voice is raspier and more in line with a rock star than Mercury’s more theatrical sensibilities, and it’s a nice change of pace. Of course, the always on-point background harmonies still remind us that this is very much a Queen sound. The title obviously implies the content of the song, but I like the clever rhymes in lines like “Tell my girl I’ve got to forget her/I’d rather buy me a new carburetor.”
One of the most well-known and affecting songs from the album is “You’re my Best Friend,” Mercury’s sweet, sincere song about commitment. It’s an awesome feel-good song, one that reminds us to appreciate the loved ones we have in our own lives. Of course, there are some truly great vocal harmonies on display, and Mercury’s smooth, whispered “ohs” at the end of the track are simply infectious.
A song like ’39 begins to display the album’s epic tones as well as Queen’s penchant for grandiosity. The lyrics, sung by Brian May, are apparently about space travel. A group of astronauts embark on a year-long journey but return to find out 100 years have passed on earth time. The acoustic guitar work in the song is unique, and the lyrics invite contemplation. “Don’t you hear my call, though you’re many years away/Don’t you hear me calling you?”
“Sweet Lady” is the song that best shows off the band’s instrumental mastery. It features an incredible variety of rhythm and sound, starting in ¾ meter before switching to a lightning-fast 4/4. It really rocks, and what’s even more impressive is how effortless it all feels.
“Seaside Rendezvous” offers a switch back to Queen’s operatic mode, and the result is just insanely good. Taylor and Mercury’s vocals imitate instruments including a trumpet, clarinet, tuba and kazoo. It’s pretty mind-blowing stuff, and honestly sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard. It’s a tough one to describe, but it’s easily an album highlight.
It may be hard to imagine, but there is a song on A Night at the Opera that rivals “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “The Prophet’s Song” is it. It’s a candidate for most epic rock song ever recorded, as well as for my personal favorite. It’s a dark, long (over 8 minutes) and challenging work, speaking of dreams and prophecies and doom. “Oh, flee for your life/Deceive you not the fires of hell will take you/Should death await you.” The vocal round in the middle of the song is the true highlight, combined with an echo effect that is one of the coolest vocal tricks I’ve ever heard. It’s positively goosebump-inducing. The harmonic layering here is indescribably perfect. Thankfully, May’s guitar still has some room to wail here as well. The song ends on a more hopeful refrain (“Love is still the answer take my hand”) before its subtle and haunting denouement. If there’s such a thing as a perfect song, this is it.
*Note: Below is a really weird live recording that sounds totally different but is still pretty awesome.
“Love of my Life” is much softer but no less effective. Mercury’s beautiful, haunting, melancholic voice breaks with emotion. Bolstered by a melodic theatrical piano background, he strikes that brilliant and tricky balance between vulnerable and powerful as he sings about a love scorned, yet one he hopes to restore. It’s the kind of song Adele makes today. She certainly owes a debt of gratitude to songs like this.
“Good Company” is a clever song that recreates the sound of a Dixieland-style jazz band. May sings and plays ukulele. The odd lyrics seem to describe a man who comes across various people in his life but in the end discovers they were all imaginary. Songs like this once again show off the band’s immense variety and range.
And now we reach the granddaddy of all rock songs. What more is there to say about “Bohemian Rhapsody” that hasn’t already been said? Sometimes I wonder if the song has been spoiled by its perennial overplayed status on radio stations across the globe. Somehow, the answer to that question is always “no.” One does not simply tire of this song, ever. The song follows a man’s rumination on death row after having committed murder. The man expresses intense remorse as he sings to his mother. “life had just begun/but now I’ve gone and thrown it all away.” As he comforts her, he seems at first to accept his fate, but the chorus intercedes; some ask for mercy from the judge, while others condemn him. This one song contains more variety and emotion than 100 entire modern pop albums. There’s the chaotic call-and-response that echoes the narrator’s steadily decreasing sanity (“Mama mia let me go!”). He then turns to rage as the song kicks into rock mode with May’s legendary guitar solo. “So you think you can love me and leave me to die?” The narrator’s inner turmoil and back-and-forth emotional state is absolutely thrilling, but his bleak conclusion is still the same. “Nothing really matters, anyone can see/Nothing really matters to me.”
Oddly, the song ends with an efficient, short guitar interlude of “God Save the Queen.” It’s a nice, quiet ending to an album that is anything but.
A Night at the Opera is one of the most thrilling albums ever crafted. To call it Queen’s best work is to imply that there’s a runner-up somewhere in the vicinity. But this bad boy is in a league all its own. Iconic, both grandly ambitious and achingly intimate, it’s at obviously overblown and self-aggrandizing work. Queen was smart enough to only announce they were the best in the business if it were actually true. This album is proof enough that they most certainly were.