From Queen Archives: Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, John Deacon, Interviews, Articles, Reviews
Reviews > Queen Music Reviews > XX-XX-1995 - Made in Heaven - Q Magazine
'Made In Heaven' is an album so heavily freighted with emotional resonance that it is quite impossible to disentangle the music from the unique historical context in which it was made.
However, in the interests of critical rigour, let’s imagine for a moment what the likely response to a new Queen album - any Queen album - would have been were Freddie Mercury still alive and well in 1995. The gap of four years since their last studio LP - the chart-topping Innuendo - would have been regarded as unexceptional. Some grudging respect might have been afforded to the new album’s high production values, the sheer professionalism of the performances, the craft of the songwriting and the durability of the group’s commercial appeal. But the music would have been routinely described as overwrought, the lyrics as simple-minded, and the package as a monumental irrelevance.
As we all know, Mercury quietly succumbed to AIDS in 1991 - just nine months after the release of ‘Innuendo’. Thus the immediate question begged by the appearance of a new album at this late stage in the day must be: what manner of tasteless, barrel-scraping exercise are the surviving members of the band involved in now? The odd thing is that, in most respects, ‘Made In Heaven’ could easily fit the bill of the hypothetical album described above.
Mercury was fully aware of what lay in store for him by the time Queen finished recording ‘Innuendo’ in the summer of 1990. His practical response was to move away from the big city bustle of his home in Munich to the calm of Montreux, where Queen had acquired their own Mountain Studios, and to keep working as and when his health permitted. With touring out of the question and promotion of ‘Innuendo’ kept to a minimum, the band were free to work in the studio as much as Mercury was able. The singer kept going on and off, right up until September 1991 when he recorded his last track - an untypical sombre and moving song called ‘Mother Love’.
Naturally, there were doubts about the wisdom of releasing ‘Made In Heaven’ at all, let alone doing so too soon after Mercury’s death, and it was nearly two years before the rest of the band felt comfortable about resuming work on it. The process was also slowed up because guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor had both embarked on solo projects (with widely varying degrees of success). There was, too, the small matter of the ‘Greatest Hits II’ and ‘Live At Wembley ‘86’ albums, both of which were already conveniently available to soak up the immediate posthumous demand for Queen products.
The point to bear in mind is that, despite possible appearances, ‘Made In Heaven’ is not some retrospective rehash of surplus, rejected, or ‘lost’ vocal performances married to new backing tracks (of the imminent ‘new’ Beatles recordings, but an album of entirely original material (bar one track) recorded, for the most part, with as much care and attention to detail as any of Queen’s previous releases. Furthermore, it is a collection of songs co-written and sung by a man in the absolute knowledge that he is going to die very soon.
It is all the more surprising, then, to discover the oddly - indeed, at times, insanely - optimistic tone of the album. It begins and ends with ‘It’s A Beautiful Day’ - the only song which sounds as if it might have been unfinished (hence the fade after a two-and-a-half-minute introduction and the rocking out reprise at the end). ‘It’s a beautiful day / The sun is shining / I feel good / And no-one’s gonna stop me now’, Mercury sings, his wonderfully frayed, cod-operatic tenor surging vigorously above an accompaniment of rolling piano, swirling strings, an angelic choir and twittering birds (seriously!)
The tone is set for a succession of numbers in a similarly life-affirming vein - some good, some less so. ‘My Life Has Been Saved’ suffers from the sort of naff tune and pseudo-religious lyric more associated with Cliff Richard (‘I thank the Lord above / My life has been saved’). ‘A Winter’s Tale’, meanwhile, is a slushy ballad which finds Mercury in ultra-mellow mood gazing at the tranquil scene from the window of his room in Montreux (a picture of which adorns the cover of the album). It’s basically a compendium of greeting card supplements set to music (‘It’s all so beautiful / Like a mountain landscape painting in the sky’), and would doubtless be a strong contender for the Christmas Number 1, if released as a single. In view of Mercury’s demise, many people will find it an incredibly poignant song, but in the cold light of day it must, in all honesty, be marked down as a pretty sickly piece of work. On the plus side, ‘Heaven For Everyone’ is a more thoughtful ballad, written by Taylor, which contrasts the ‘world of cool deception’ with how things ought to be (‘This world could be fed, this world could be fun’). ‘You Don’t Fool Me’ - which is arguably the only song on the album that does not have any extra layers of special meaning attached to it - is a strong soul/disco groove with a nice, catchy hook. And most improbable of all, under the circumstances, ‘I Was Born To Love You’ is an amazingly buoyant love song, written by Mercury, and belted out with all the zest of a man who seemingly hasn’t a care in the world. It’s a fine pop tune which romps home to a breathless climax amid the sound of fireworks exploding and hoots of laughter from Mercury.
If ever a band embodied the old hoofers’ maxim ‘the show must go on’, it was Queen. Mercury may have been many things, but as an artist he was not given to brooding or prolonged outbursts of angst. God knows what kind of album Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins would produce if Eddie Vedder or Billy Corgan ever found themselves in Mercury’s shoes. But Queen’s music was always primarily a vehicle for escapism and fun rather than self-analysis and introspective gloom.
So even when the mood darkens, there is always a touch of bravado in the words and a bristling aura of invincibility about Queen’s music. The title track is a stately mid-tempo number which finds Mercury looking towards a doubtful future with firm resolve. ‘I’m playing my role in history / Look to find my goal / Taking in all this misery / But giving it all my soul’. The rhythm section rivets the beat to the floor in typically arthritic fashion, while May peppers any potential gaps in the arrangement with Flash Gordon-type bursts of ornate, multi-tracked guitar.
‘Let Me Live’ takes as its springboard the chorus line of Emma Franklin’s hit ‘(Take A Little) Piece Of My Heart’ (also famously covered by Janis Joplin) and turns it into a gospel choir-assisted tour de force. Again, mixed emotions pull the song to and fro, but the ultimate effect is one of boundless energy and uplift. ‘Please let me live / And make a brand new start’, Mercury pleads - and with music like this on his side, you almost believe it could happen.
Only on two tracks do we find Mercury staring finally and unequivocally over the edge of the abyss. The first is a remake of the hideous Brian May hit ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’. Doubtless, it is not intended as a song of censure, but even sung by Mercury himself, the line which goes ‘The pain will make you crazy / You’re the victim of your crime’ still sounds like somebody’s sick idea of a recrimination. Some resonances are simply too strong to ignore, no matter how many times the ‘real’ meaning of a song is explained.
The real show-stopper, however, is ‘Mother Love’. Recorded just weeks before he died, it’s a mournful, minor-key song, with a sparse, bluesy arrangement, steered by a lonesome slide guitar. Here at last, Mercury allows a chink of light to fall on his terrible sadness. ‘I’m a man of the world and they say that I’m strong / But my heart is heavy and my hope is gone’.
Thanks to some questionable creative tampering, the song ends with a snatch of Mercury leading an enormodome crowd in one of his famous singalongs, and then a sample of him singing ‘I think I’m going back’ - the opening line of the Goffin / King song - which he recorded in the early 1970s under the alias of Larry Lurex. The final sound, a baby crying, is a dramatic touch too many. But then Queen have never exactly been renowned for the subtlety of their vision, and what would come across as the most ludicrous bathos in anyone else’s hands hits approximately the right note here.
So there it is. Ten new tracks (and one reprise). No filler. No shame. An essential purchase for Queen fans, certainly, but even without its special significance, ‘Made In Heaven’ is probably a better album than Innuendo and a fitting swan song by one of the most incandescent groups in rock. ‘Made In Heaven’ is also the last musical will and testament of a star who was never going to be turned into a saint, but whose grandstanding performances were, right to the very end, always marked by reckless enthusiasm and a rare generosity of spirit.”