Monday, January 17, 2011

Listening Mode : Made in Heaven

Here’s another album I didn’t get to buy until lately… now Queen might be my favorite band ever, but when this ultimate offering came out back in 1995, I found it rather disappointing. That’s why for years it has been the single Queen album I don’t own. But hey, time went by and I thought I’d give it another try.

I’ve got to admit, there’s still a lot to cringe about.

Some of it can be excused. Yes, the material is uneven, with a bunch of subpar songs sporting very weak lyrics (“My life has been saved”, “I was born to love you”, “Heaven for everyone”), but the songwriting process was understandably shaky, with Mercury showing up in the studio whenever he felt good enough, asking for whatever could be sung upon. In such precarious circumstances, it’s hardly any wonder that some of the album is basically uninspired filler, while other songs like “I was born to love you” are perhaps unduly rescued from Mercury’s solo album.

On the other hand, what’s with the production? “Innuendo”, among other things, was remarkable for its somewhat timeless production, at a time when the late 80’s commercial sound still ruled king on most mainstream records. The production on “Made in Heaven” was awkward in 1995 and sounds all the more dated now, one good example being the cheap electric piano on “Too much love will kill you” or the FM rock arrangement for “I was born to love you”.

That said the album does have its highlights.
Songs I didn’t care about 16 years ago, they seem to speak to me now that, well, 16 years have passed…

Take for instance the evocative beauty of “A winter’s tale”. At the time I thought it was rather corny and dull. Today, for all its cheesy arrangement, it sounds contemplative and elegiac, Mercury’s dreamlike, surreal depiction of the mountain scenery outside his last residence in Switzerland.
I can also find merit in “Let me live”. Yes, it’s a standard rock tune, but it’s possibly the only song where Mercury, May and Taylor all sing solo parts.
I did warm up to “You don’t fool me”… a disco song harking back to the oddball days of “Hot Space”, but with a touch of hypnotic melancholy.

“Too much love will kill you”, on the other hand, was always a favorite of mine. It has become a signature song for May, but this version features outstanding vocals from Mercury (who oddly enough found it somewhat too weak to end up on “The Miracle” album).

The one song that always stood up, of course, is “Mother love”.
This was a gem in 1995 and it remains one of the band’s unknown masterpieces.
Brian wrote the music, Freddie the lyrics, and both recorded it a couple of weeks before the singer’s death.

The finished song is unlike any other in the band’s repertoire, featuring the most direct and confessional lyrics they ever put to tape. It can be argued that they share a sense of closure with “The show must go on”, but the latter is written in a poetic, metaphorical way. “Mother love”, by contrast, is simple, brutal and strikingly vivid in its depiction of helplessness.

“I don't want to sleep with you
I don't need the passion too
I don't want a stormy affair
To make me feel my life is heading somewhere”

This coming from the man who spent most of the eighties fooling around from party to party in the utmost promiscuity.

“I'm a man of the world and they say I'm strong
But my heart is heavy and my hope is gone”

The music is subdued, minimalistic. May’s usual Red Special guitar is mostly absent. Thus the trademark Queen electric sound is out of the picture, leaving chorused arpeggios drifting on a steady, muffled rhythm.
The man of the world is looking for a dignified shelter.

“Out in the city, in the cold world outside
I don't want pity, just safe place to hide”

The electric guitars suddenly erupt and soon draw away.
Mercury says : “I long for peace before I die”, before feeling too ill to sing any more. That’s why the last verse is sung by May, literally giving his voice to his friend’s dying words.

“My body's aching, but I can't sleep
My dreams are all the company I keep
Got such a feeling as the sun goes down
I'm coming home to my sweet Mother love”
Then the song abruptly ends in an abstract collage where fragments of live audience chanting and Mercury’s familiar a cappella singing can be heard.
At first, the idea had stricken me as odd, but I get it now.
This is the personal tale of a man who has reached the heights of worldly fortune and glory and finds himself naked and vulnerable before his own mortality.

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