Wednesday 21 December 2016

QUEEN: Innuendo

(#422: 16 February 1991, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Innuendo/I’m Going Slightly Mad/Headlong/I Can’t Live With You/Don’t Try So Hard/Ride The Wild Wind/All God’s People/These Are The Days Of Our Lives/Delilah/The Hitman/Bijou/The Show Must Go On

Freddie Mercury’s blackstar, not that anyone who didn’t need to know knew that at the time, but to a degree that the opening song sounds remarkably similar in construction to the song “Blackstar,” though in a different key (“Innuendo”’s root chord is E major, compared with “Blackstar”’s B major), and that both albums end with a kind of protective defiance – “The Show Must Go On” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

If, as surely everybody involved was aware, Innuendo was to be the last Queen album with Freddie, as such – leaving aside entry #541 for now – then everybody appears to have pulled together to go out with a bang. If anything, Mercury’s illness had intensified the group’s concentration, such that they sounded more alive than anything they had done since Sheer Heart Attack. Rockers like “Headlong,” “I Can’t Live With You” and especially “The Hitman” find the group at their best and most dynamic.

More importantly, despite his illness, Freddie sounds as though he’s having the time of his life on the record. Whooping it up, multi-tracking, self-parodying but concentrated, he revels in the music, having a great deal of fun with “I’m Going Slightly Mad” – a song whose lyric was in part conjured up in discussions with Mercury and his friend Peter Straker, and a song which suggests some awareness of what their labelmates the Pet Shop Boys were up to at the time; indeed, Brian May’s guitar sounds positively like shoegazing here.

Elsewhere, the rev-it-up “Ride The Wild Wind” suggests an art-rock modification of, of all things, the Smiths’ “Shakespeare’s Sister” while Mercury clearly enjoys himself immensely on “Delilah,” which turns out to be a song about his cat.

Not that there aren’t more solemn moments. The title song – number one as a single, but hardly played today – is an obvious attempt to do a “Bo Rhap 2,” but is an altogether knottier and more complex affair, taking in parade ground paradiddles, bits of “Bolero” and “Kashmir,” a flamenco interlude with guest guitarist Steve Howe, and an atomic explosion at the end. It sounds like a statement of intent, not so much what is to come for its singer, but more reminding us what Queen were about in the first place. There are no easy “nothing really matters”-type hooks and the song’s agitated angst looks ahead to future labelmates Radiohead, and specifically “Paranoid Android.”

Likewise, the closing two songs are where the band turn their attention on what is on the horizon. “Bijou” is just one verse of Mercury, sung as though he is already beyond this planet or our reach, bookended by two long and pained weeping guitar soliloquies by May. Finally, with “The Show Must Go On,” Mercury reinforces his determination to keep on going as long as he can do so, and to keep his public countenance at whatever cost. From a dying man, the emotions expressed here are commendably lacking in self-pity.

But perhaps the best song is “Those Are The Days,” written by Roger Taylor and one of the simplest and most moving songs Queen ever recorded. A bluffer “Being Boring,” the song’s easy sun finds Mercury musing on his excitable past but finally opting not to live there; the key couplet is “No use in sitting and thinking on what you did/When you can lay back and enjoy it through your kids.” The cycle of life continues, endless and imperturbable, but of course its air of contented achievement remains essentially tragic because of its author and singer, who could have no children and was fully aware that his own time was rapidly running out. And yet, the final impression is one of uplifting hope (it’s very nearly Mercury’s “All Apologies”) – in the last shot of the video (which was the last time all four members of Queen worked actively together as a group), as with the last, dying moment of the song, Mercury glances up, smiling at the camera – a real smile - and whispers, “I still love you.” And then he is no more, yet all around us.

A peaceful Christmas to us all.