In the wake of Freddie Mercury’s grandstanding Live Aid performance, Queen has been filling stadiums in Europe. To paraphrase any one of a number of their songs, rock’s reigning champs of bad taste could be ruling the world right now. But it’ll be surprising if A Kind of Magic, the band’s fourteenth LP, helps Queen to capitalize on the situation. The album, which might have been Queen’s crowning moment, is absolutely bankrupt of gauche imagination. There’s none of the stylistic strip mining that unearthed hooks like the ones from “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” or “Another One Bites the Dust,” no ambitiously nutty concept recitals like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Dominated by barren slabs of synthscape and guitarist Brian May’s orchestral fretwork, A Kind of Magic sounds like hard rock with a hollow core: it’s heavy plastic.
There’s something endearingly campy about Freddie Mercury’s brazen stage presence, but on record his mockoperatic delivery often sounds affected. And the slapdash quality of these songs makes him seem monumentally insincere: he ends the inspirational “One Vision” with a silly plea for fried chicken and a one-night stand. Freddie whisks optimistic falderal (“Friends Will Be Friends”) and greedy demands (“Gimme the Prize”) into a busy froth. His weird, piercing tenor is almost moving when wrapped around a melodic May guitar spurt on “One Year of Love,” but most of the time he’s histrionically going through the motions.
The rest of Queen is coasting as well on a high-tech glide. Brian May tosses off virtuoso clichés while drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon plow through the electronic woofs and tweets. “We Are the Champions,” from 1977, still sounds as insistent as a jackboot compared to this album’s boastful closer, “Princes of the Universe,” which veers into unintentional self-parody. The world-is-my-oyster lyrics seem more lazy than arrogant, and the music is a mechanical thud rather than a metalized threat. This band might as well put some pomp back in its rock. Its members are never going to make it as dignified elder statesmen.