Ready Freddie’s been dead for 23 years, and despite the occasional tour featuring a vocalist who’s… well… not Freddie, most would agree that Queen died back then, too. That leaves Queen Forever facing the same challenges levelled at many distantly posthumous releases: is there a reason this never saw the light of day? Is there some fragment of genius we missed sat on a cutting room floor? Or are we flogging a dead horse to a degree that would embarrass even Axl Rose? The answer, invariably, comes down to how good the ‘new’ material actually is. In this case, the answer, sadly, is not particularly.
To be fair to Forever, it’s approved by the rest of the band (or at least the two of them capable of such a task), and does make a solid effort not to be a re-record of the dozen-plus greatest hits-esque albums that proceeded it. This isn’t about the biggest Queen tracks; instead it’s about some nice soothing ballads crammed with gorgeous harmonies. Tracks like the ‘A Winter’s Tale’ – Mercury’s dark-in-hindsight hint at his secretive impending death – wouldn’t be confined to the relative backwaters of most bands, and perhaps only is with Queen because it lacks that bombastic hook they’re so noted for. ‘Bijou’, a creative spark that occasionally sounds just a little bit like it’s been crafted from some offcuts of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ (at least until Freddie kicks in and sweeps the track into fairy-tale love song territory) is also a worthy highlight. ‘Somebody to Love’, Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’, ‘You’re My Best Friend’ and half a dozen other tracks are so intrinsically familiar to our culture that – breathtakingly brilliant as they can be – throwing them on yet another compilation album is bordering on pointless.
Despite those blockbusters, though, the absence of the real supersonic headliner grabbers – no ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, no ‘We Will Rock You’, no ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ and no ‘Radio Gaga’ – is a notable quirk in albums of this style. It does serve to make ‘Forever’ a more interesting throwback; a notable attempt to distinguish the album from Greatest Hits I, II, III and the rest, even if the results are somewhat mixed. The headline grabbers were always going to be those three ‘new’ tracks, though, and somewhat predictably they’re probably the least inspiring Forever has to offer.
In truth ‘Love Kills’ barely even qualifies as a new release at all, having previously been a Mercury solo effort, but the rebranded ‘Love Kills – The Ballad’ is cleverly and subtly constructed. It features its fair share of epic vocal highs, and dates far better than the slow-build 80s-feel disco of the original, not least because its toned-down sound, title and lyrics take on a profound angle given how Freddie died. After that, though, the alluring promise of ‘new Freddie tracks’ falls apart.
‘There Must Be More To Life Than This’ – a Michael Jackson collaboration – is long hyped in Queen circles, but is notable more for the extent to which Freddie outperforms Jackson than any actual creative spark between the two. The choruses, in fact, try to soar but almost clash, sounding more like a musical mid-air collision, feathers flying, and surrounded by verses a short misstep note or three from ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’. It doesn’t bare many repeat listens, but it still tops ‘Let Me In Your Heart Again’. The track was left on the cutting room floor unfinished the first time round, and despite some modestly tasty guitar licks, simply sounds like a reconstructed Queen song. It’s obviously Freddie and co., but sounds like a dull, cheesy composite of everything else we know so well.
All in, there’s no denying this is a quality piece of semi-operatic pop, more so if you skip the marketing gimmick that is the ‘new’ stuff, but with Queen that probably qualifies as stating the obvious. While it’s very listenable and purists will be tempted to hear out those newbies, though, ‘Let Me In Your Heart Again’ might feel like pissing on Freddie’s grave if it wasn’t just so forgettable and mediocre it hardly seems to matter. Still, treated as a more interesting angle on the ‘it’s nearly Christmas Greatest Hits’ money spinner, Forever is a pleasant exploration of some slightly less obvious corners of Queen’s back catalogue. How bad can that be?