How could a band follow a beast as monstrous as A Night at the Opera? Queen did it with one nearly as immoderate. Released at the closing of 1976, its fifth album lacks its predecessor’s front-to-end songwriting strength; Roger Taylor and John Deacon’s contributions here lack the memorability of their previous efforts, and the way A Day at the Races is packaged and sequenced so similarly to Opera undercuts some of its impact.
Races nevertheless ranks among Queen’s finest because its high points are so lofty. “Tie Your Mother Down” is almost certainly Brian May’s attempt at raising the bar of nastiness established with Opera‘s “Death on Two Legs,” and his chugging, boogie-’til-we-puke guitar riff opened Queen concerts on a raucous note for years to come. Meanwhile, Freddie Mercury gets more daring: He covertly aims his obligatory music-hall ditty “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” at another guy. His lead blends with the band’s “Hey boy” background vocals to blur the difference between the song’s protagonist and its object, thus enabling the singer’s highly civilized yet not-at-all old-fashioned depiction of same-sex romance to sail over the heads of much of Queen’s initial audience. Mercury’s rapturous piano ballad “You Take My Breath Away” features some of his loveliest upper register singing, and May’s Beatle-y “Long Away” ranks among the band’s many hidden treasures.
A secular gospel song that seeks salvation in earthly affection, the album’s pop hit, “Somebody to Love,” is one of the few Queen tracks that seem to invite cover versions. Although it boasts an overdubbed choir nearly as large as the one that animates “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it relies not on guitar pyrotechnics, but on simple piano and voices. But its range of notes is extensive; Mercury wrote “Somebody” as a tribute to his beloved Aretha Franklin, and although George Michael nailed the tune at 1992′s Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, few in his wake have. When considering a karaoke night out, don’t say I didn’t warn you.