One way to confirm that Queen never consisted of your typically haughty progressive-rock snobs is to consider the following: In the late Seventies, Emerson, Lake and Palmer released two albums called Works, as in “works of art,” but in 1984, Queen put out an album called The Works, as in the stuff you pile on hamburgers. This suggests that Queen is well aware that its forte has always been eclectic excess for its own sake and probably helps explain why Queen’s still making records and ELP isn’t and why an album like A Night at the Opera, from 1975, sounds so much smarter now than when it came out. These shameless all-time glam survivors would try anything once, and amid their messes they attained classical-kitsch pinnacles, helped invent rap music and provided celebration songs for every championship team on earth. In 1990, they were sampled by Vanilla Ice, covered by Metallica, TV-commercialed by Huffy Bicycles and explicitly acknowledged as an important inspiration by arty hardcore ensembles and funk-metal and industrial-drone bands alike.
With “Another One Bites the Dust,” which topped the pop chart for three weeks ten years ago, Queen became the first mainstream troupe to comprehend the rock potential of hip-hop minimalism. But since then the band has floundered, sinking to passable Bowie duets, feeble groove moves, queasy myth metal and antiradio diatribes that wound up being the most annoying things on the radio. So to call Innuendo the group’s most playful top-to-bottom pile since The Game, from 1980, may not be saying much — yet there’s no getting around the new album’s craft. From the circus drumroll that introduces the opening Zep-screech epic about justice and death in the desert sand (“Innuendo”) to the quick rap in the closing bump and grind (“The Show Must Go On”), these old entertainers sound like they’ve decided to stop trying so hard, like they’re finally satisfied with their lot in life.
Innuendo is so lightweight you’ll forget it as soon as it’s over — which, with this band, should go without saying anyway — but there’s nothing cynical about it. Unlike most fortyish rock relics, the boys in Queen are still too kooky and insincere to settle for any of that “well-earned wisdom of middle age” bunk. They just throw food at the wall, and if it sticks, fine. And if it doesn’t stick, well, that’s fine too.