When people discuss the greatest album of Queen's distinguished recording career, A Night At The Opera more often than not is at the top of the list. Whilst I agree that it is a fine piece work, I would also venture to suggest that it is not without its flaws, however minor. As time has moved on, the more certain characteristics of the album have occurred to me.
The album was recorded at a time when Queen had just achieved their first major international success, via the single "Killer Queen", and the album Sheer Heart Attack. They entered the recording studio in the summer of 1975 flushed with this success, and perhaps conscious that they were under pressure to improve upon their efforts from the previous year......
Some of the avenues consciously, or subsconsciously, pursued by the band in order to achieve "perfection" end up creating the facets of the album which most grate, if only slightly, to the ears in 2012. The overdubs, whilst nominally adding depth and gravitas to some of the tracks, also lend it a kind of "patchwork" effect in places, a trend perhaps exacerbated by the use of various different studios to record the album? This all makes A Night At The Opera sound very mildly contrived, calculated and ponderous, at variance with the freshness and spontaneity of Sheer Heart Attack. A case of trying too hard? These issues do not ruin the album, but it could have been even greater if they hadn't been present....
So, those are some of the criticisms of A Night At The Opera. What about the album's many undoubted strengths? Well, one of the things which makes it distinctive is the trouble clearly taken to experiment with "unusual" instruments and techniques in order to achieve the desired soundscape or feel. Koto, ukelele, double bass, harp and electric piano are all employed at various points. Whilst this makes "Opera" seem more disparate and fragmented than some other Queen records, it does signify a laudable willingness to push boundaries and defy convention.
Some of the songs on A Night At The Opera have aged better than others. To me, "Love of My Life", more and more sounds like the highlight of the entire album, "Bohemian Rhapsody" aside. Simple, heartfelt, sincere and free of artifice. One of Freddie Mercury's finest songs, one of his most exquisite vocal performances, and containing some glorious piano playing from the great man.
"Death On Two Legs" was an inspired choice to begin the running order. One of Queen's most incisive and powerful tracks, with lyrics possessed of some vitriol. The middle of the album is bookmarked by "The Prophet's Song", a ambitious track which finds favour with Queen fans, but which I suspect divides opinion amongst "neutrals". Much multi-tracking of guitars and vocals here, with the recording technology of the day doubtless being stretched to its outer limits. Pushing the envelope, I think it's referred to as these days...
The genre exercises on the album meet with variable success. Looking dispassionately these days, "Lazing on A Sunday Afternoon" and "Seaside Rendezvous" sound a bit too similar, leading to a charge of "filler", even if both do exude a kind of lightweight, frothy charm. "Good Company", on the other hand, still feels like a gem, a genuine showcase for the many talents of Brian May, and displaying bounteous ingenuity.
The "rockier" numbers, "I'm In Love With My Car" and "Sweet Lady" might seem incongruous in this company, but they have stood the test of time, the former in particular, with its numerous hooks, guitar histrionics and lyrics which are quintessentially Roger Taylor! The power chords on "Sweet Lady" still have the power to move and satisfy.
In the past, "39" was possibly under-estimated by all and sundry. However, it now emerges as one of the album's strongest suits, another one of Brian May's esoteric and thoughtful compositions. For this particular writer, much of the residual appeal of the song rests in its Hermann Hesse-inspired lyrics. I think that "Siddhartha" may be the novel in question.
"You're My Best Friend" remains one of the Queen songs most often played on the radio, and although a great pop song, it feels mildly out of place on this album, but does inject some valuable levity and spontaneity.
You may have noticed that this review contains relatively little mention of the epic "Bohemian Rhapsody". Well, I do like to be different, and in any event everything which there is to be said about the song has already been committed to paper (or screen)!
Having commenced with some misgivings, I think that they have been more than balanced out by praise and extolling of virtues.
For the record, I still prefer Sheer Heart Attack, just!