Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Cosmos Rocks

"What planet is this? Hmmm?"

So begins the first Queen album since 1995's Made In Heaven, this outing with new partner and vocalist Paul Rodgers. The Cosmos Rocks is not an overstatement as to the content of this album.

Now, I'll admit a certain genetic predisposition to liking the music of Queen. I've had high expectations of all of their releases. A few times I've been disappointed. But for "Calling All Girls" and "Body Language," I really wonder why Hot Space was allowed to happen. "Radio Ga Ga" is one of the worst things I've ever heard. No kidding.

So, with Freddie Mercury gone almost 17 years, I wondered what could possibly go right with a new Queen album. Rodgers is beyond capable as a singer, but is he the singer to succeed Mercury? In truth, as I listed to this, I kept almost hearing Mercury's soaring falsetto. Almost, but not quite: Rodgers' powerful baritone doesn't seem to have the high end that Mercury did. Is this a problem? No.

The fist two tracks on the album demonstrate that, musically, Queen is right in form. "Cosmos Rockin'" follows the tradition of starting an album with an up-tempo rocker, replete with trademark big chorus vocals. "Time To Shine" is a showpiece for Rodgers' capabilities as a singer. The vocalizing is not without it's Mercury-isms, but Rodgers is not trying to be Mercury. Mercury's singing style was as much a fixture of Queen as Brian May's overdubbed guitars, so hearing them come from Rodgers, while something of a surprise, lends to the character of this as a Queen album.

It isn't until "Still Burnin'" almost ten minutes in that Brian May breaks into his first solo, at the very conclusion of which Roger Taylor gives us "We Will Rock You" drums. These first songs all share some of the elements of the album's first single. "C-lebrity" is of the same classic hard rock caliber as "I Want It All" or "Headlong."

As ballads go, "Small" is pleasant enough and the band clearly like it well enough to have it reprised after the last track. The beginning of "We Believe" harkens to "Is This The World We Created...?" and is a bona fide anthem with a statement advocating change. Also included in the package is last year's single, "Say It's Not True," a magnificent ballad that is as big and as small as "Love Of My Life." It features all three band members -- first Roger Taylor in sweet falsetto, then Brian May and, finally Rodgers -- sharing lead vocals. As the song was handled, it was a fine introduction last year to Paul Rodgers with Queen in recorded form.

Surprisingly, the gentle rockabilly of "Call Me" recalls Eddie Rabbitt's "I Love A Rainy Night" more than "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and the first person I shared the song with asked me if Queen were employing a kazoo. I reassured him that it was in fact Brian's guitars and recommended an upgrade to his laptop speakers.

There is a happy near total absence of synthesizers on this album that is a cause to cheer. Now, I'm a lover of the synth, but I must confess that I thought that Queen's music was diminished by their addition on The Game and subsequent records. Also nearly absent is piano which, to my ears, doesn't make it's advent until "Some Things That Glitter," another big power-ballad.

I think this record is a strong statement that there were other influences in Queen than just Freddie. May's signature guitar work makes this a Queen album (and makes his solo work occasionally indistinguishable from Queen) as much as Freddie's piano or John Deacon's work on bass.

On my first listen through this material, I was expecting an oddity, of which there always seems to be at least one on a Queen album. There was "Delilah," for example, ostensibly about Freddie's cat, or "I'm In Love With My Car." Or "White Man" or "Life Is Real" or "Mustapha." On The Cosmos Rocks, it isn't until the very end that it turns up, as "Surf's Up...School's Out!" With "Now I'm Here" rhythm and heavily processed vocals, the song has the character of an outtake or b-side, and yet I still found myself bobbing my head to the beat.

Sadly, there isn't anything here that makes a latter-day Queen mini-opera. I guess those expectations were too high, even for a band that has had "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Innuendo," and "It's Late" as epic singles. Even so, I wouldn't be surprised if they make a stab at it with "We Believe." It catchy enough. It's uplifting enough.

Was The Cosmos Rocks worth the three year wait for a Queen + Paul Rodgers album? Most definitely. The album suffers a bit from pacing in my opinion: the elimination of one ballad might have helped with that, but it's hard to complain. As a first effort from veteran rockers, this album is as polished as one would expect and benefits from excellent songwriting and performance.

The big question is this: is The Cosmos Rocks a Queen album? While the album lacks the touches that Freddie Mercury would undoubtedly have given this material, most notably his flamboyance and irreplaceable voice, I deem the record worth the wait. It is a Queen album in soul and character, listenable, even danceable in places. It's a treat for the ears. But remember: your mileage may vary. I admitted at the beginning of this that I was predisposed to like it. And so I do.

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