It’s hard not to be awed by the sheer indefatigability with which Brian May and Roger Taylor have worked to keep Queen’s name in the spotlight in the 31 years since Freddie Mercury’s death. They’ve given pretty much everything a go: jukebox musicals, history-rewriting biopics, re-recording the band’s hits with everyone from Luciano Pavarotti to Robbie Williams to Wyclef Jean; and touring the world with former Free vocalist Paul Rodgers or former American Idol contestant Adam Lambert deputising for Mercury. Moreover, they’ve managed to keep up a release schedule that would shame a band with a frontman in the prime of life: there have been 28 “new” Queen releases, including box sets, live albums, collections of radio sessions and 12-inch mixes and a succession of compilations that have rearranged their back catalogue in a variety of ways. You can quibble with their methods and question their quality control if you like, but it has worked: Queen are permanent residents in the album charts; their streaming figures dwarf those of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or David Bowie.
But there has been relatively little in the way of previously unheard songs. Queen, it seems, just weren’t the kind of band given to recording 30 new songs for an album and picking the best 10. They managed to squeeze out one posthumous album, 1995’s Made in Heaven, a by-any-means necessary collection that involved old outtakes, vocals Mercury completed shortly before his death – some of them fragmentary and worked up into full songs though judicious use of a sampler – and tracks from the band members’ solo albums reworked to sound more like Queen. Two more outtakes were appended to a compilation called Queen Forever in 2014. The deluxe reissues of the 14 studio albums Queen recorded with Mercury managed to grub up a grand total of two unheard tracks between them: both were under two minutes long and one of them was an instrumental with the unpromising title Chinese Torture.
So it’s hard to know how to react to the news that May and Taylor have discovered a cache of six hitherto-unheard songs recorded during the sessions for 1989’s The Miracle, Mercury’s penultimate album with the band. On the one hand, given Queen’s continued popularity, it’s clearly a big deal: big enough for the BBC to loudly trumpet the world premiere of one track, Face It Alone. On the other, if they were any good, surely they would have been released already? The band have hardly been coy when it comes to archival releases. If you tend to the latter view, your suspicions might be raised further by the press release announcing the eight-disc “collector’s edition” box set on which the songs feature: it makes as much of the fact that it contains recordings of “candid spoken exchanges on the studio floor” featuring the band members’ “in-jokes and banter” as it does of the new songs.
Judging by Face It Alone, the truth lies somewhere between the two. It’s not a bad song, but nor is it anything approaching a classic. May apparently thought it was “unsalvageable” until corrected by studio engineers, possibly armed with the kind of AI-assisted technology that was used on the Beatles’ Get Back documentary. Everyone involved has clearly done their best with what was available, but even with the engineers’ technological ministrations, it still sounds somehow unfinished, a recording that’s been tricked out into a funereally paced song – the drums thudding along like the theme tune from Mastermind – rather than a lost gem: effectively the same verse sung twice, with minor alterations the second time around, a chorus and some extempore singing tacked on to the end. It’s hard to believe it would have ended up like this had Queen completed it in the late 80s.
That said, the real attraction is the presence of Mercury, and it’s hard to fault his vocal, which is every bit as emotive and OTT as you might want a hitherto-unheard Freddie Mercury vocal to be. Even when tentatively essaying a work-in-progress, effectively singing the same verse twice, he was disinclined to give it less than 150%. The lyrics, meanwhile, sound as if they’re cut from a similar cloth to The Miracle’s closing track Was It All Worth It or Hang on in There, which originally turned up on the B-side of I Want It All. The former song reflected on Queen’s history, the latter grasped for optimism, but hindsight made both feel like the work of a man facing his own mortality – Mercury had been diagnosed with Aids a few months before sessions for The Miracle began. The same is true of Face It Alone, which, as its title suggests, doesn’t carry much of Hang on in There’s sanguinity: life explodes, cries can be heard, the moon has lost his clothes and “when something so deep, so far and wide falls down beside you … in the end you have to face it alone”.
The result is simultaneously moving and slender, a minor footnote that manages to pack an emotional punch regardless: that’s presumably more than enough for Queen devotees.