One of rock’s most famously eclectic and enduring monuments, Queen’s fourth album is the one that’ll forever define them. A Night at the Opera was the first record the quartet created in the wake of a significant international hit — Sheer Heart Attack‘s “Killer Queen” — and the band was clearly eager to top itself. (“Oooh, Freddie would’ve loved to have done that,” producer Roy Thomas Baker once cracked when that phrase was used to describe the band’s ambition here.) Said to have been the most expensive album of its era (and certainly sounding like it) this late-’75 smash is revered not only because it’s a milestone of analog overdubbing, but also because the fun Queen had outdoing itself is so obvious.
Diss tracks are a dime a dozen today, but “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…)” — Freddie Mercury’s second merciless attack on former manager Norman Sheffield — predated punk’s vitriol by several months. Brian May’s opening salvo of Spanish guitar leads masterfully translated to heavy metal reaffirms Queen’s rock cred within seconds, as does Mercury’s wrathful vocal, and the fact that both are joined by a choir declaring “You’re a sewer rat swimming in a cesspool of pride” in impeccable four-part harmony makes the cut as funny as it is vicious.
The jump cut into the frolicsome, Tiny Tim-ish “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” is a joke only Queen and Paul McCartney could pull off, a we-can-do-anything-we-bloody-well-want move that’s utterly rock ‘n’ roll, even when the music is anything but. A key to Queen’s universality is that no matter how far it goes out on an effete limb, the quartet returns to dude-friendly rock; Roger Taylor’s “I’m in Love With My Car” manages to be both macho and strangely melancholy because its singer acknowledges he can’t sustain a relationship with a woman and an automobile at the same time. Even when dealt a rock track as direct and dumb as May’s “Sweet Lady,” Mercury both embodies the music and twists it, while John Deacon’s “You’re My Best Friend” remains Queen’s greatest, sincerest pop tune.
Of course, all of this is leading up to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” rock’s most famous and most fastidiously coded coming out song. It’s so ridiculously and beautifully fanciful precisely because Mercury had to rely on abstraction: He was living and indeed still sleeping with his longtime girlfriend Mary Austin when he entered his first gay relationship shortly before writing the track. His old self is the man he’s killed off; he fears going to hell for it, and yet he’s determined to escape both his internal demons and society’s condemnation. “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all,” is a line that every member of a minority that’s been trained to hate itself understands.