Added on 25-Sep-2008
September 26, 2008
What, exactly, is Queen? Such existential questions are rare in the world of popular music but this one has become inescapably urgent with this month's release of The Cosmos Rocks. Should we consider this the latest addition to the supergroup's bulging discography? Can there be Queen after Freddie Mercury?
It is true that distinctive frontmen have proven replaceable in the past. AC/DC has easily outlived Bon Scott. But Queen is different. It is not merely Mercury's voice - arguably the greatest in rock history - that makes this so.
Mercury was a uniquely awesome combination: showmanship, compositional wizardry and an extraordinary capacity for effortless creative risk. It is not right to say Mercury was Queen, for that misses that he needed his colleagues too: his mundane solo material suddenly zinged to life when treated posthumously by them on Made in Heaven. But so elemental was he that there is simply no surviving him.
And The Cosmos Rocks proves it. Here, "Queen" (really just Brian May and Roger Taylor) join Paul Rodgers (of Free and Bad Company) for 14 new tracks. Rodgers is a quality singer with a pedigree.
In the '70s, Deep Purple approached him to replace their departed singer. He declined. He should have declined this one too. To listen to any Queen song sung by someone other than Mercury is merely to see what a peerless talent he was.
But more troubling here is that every track could be any other rock band. It is not that it is uniformly awful, though chunks of it are pedestrian and the lyrics are catastrophic. It is just that it is unflinchingly unoriginal. Cosmos Rockin' is a solid rock track but it is basically Johnny B Goode with bigger amps.
May's cool riffs on Voodoo decorate what is probably the album's most interesting chord progression but even that is only relative; it would be standard elsewhere.
Then there is a parade of songs, best represented by We Believe, that are, frankly, cliched beyond redemption.
With the possible exception of the single, C-Lebrity, it's difficult to imagine Mercury singing any of these songs.
This is, in short, the very opposite of a Queen album. The band's signatures - thick backing vocals and multilayered, orchestral guitar tracks - make only rare token appearances.
More fundamentally, there is nothing of Queen's soul here. This was a band that almost never repeated itself musically - even within a song. Tracks of multiple movements and endless variety defined them.
Gone here is the daring creativity and experimentation that was Queen's engine. The band that brought us The Prophet's Song, Innuendo and of course Bohemian Rhapsody has long since departed.
This is best received as the first release of an entirely new entity: Queen + Paul Rodgers. Even INXS remained INXS when Jon Stevens replaced Michael Hutchence in 2002.
The "+" is an admission of Mercury's uniqueness and that Queen do not simply go on. This at least provides Queen fans with an escape clause.
Waleed Aly is a Melbourne writer and broadcaster who is recovering from his unhealthy Queen obsession.