Everyone knows the story of the Spice Girls – the rags to riches tale of ‘five normal girls from five really normal backgrounds’. No matter where you were from 1996 -1998, you knew who they were – there was no getting away from them. Subsequently, everyone knows their hits. Spice, the group’s first album, sold a staggering 28 million copies worldwide. The follow up, Spiceworld, managed a respectable 15 million. So you can understand why Forever is - with its comparatively meager worldwide sales of 1 million copies - generally regarded, in their much documented history, as somewhat of a flop,
Forever marked a new direction to start a new millennium for the two Melanies, Emma & Victoria; Geri having left two years previously. They made this declaration in style with the number-one lead single, ‘Holler’.
The girls were now managing themselves, having sacked Simon Fuller in 1998 and, having been influencial in their musical style, the girls chose to work with new producers. The first being Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, responsible for Janet Jackson’s biggest hits as well as working with Mariah Carey & Usher. Also recruited was Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins, most well-known for his work with Brandy, Destiny’s Child, Whitney Houston & Michael Jackson.
This seemed like an incredibly sensible move to make. Their first opportunity to put out an album that represented what they could do as a four-piece, being a bold change in direction to a more commercially viable urban sound, blending their pop sensibilities with contemporary R&B.
The results were excellent. The album is solid. The girls had never sounded better. Vocally, they had never been worked so hard and it really shows. The songwriting is much more personal and the occasionally cheesy music of their past is left there to be forgotten.
‘Tell Me Why’ is clearly about the breakdown of the relationship between the band and Geri, ‘It started with dreams, we started a team / But you weren’t as true as you always seemed … we could have stayed together but you wanted it this way’. The vocals are bitter, sometimes angry and filled with resentment and layer moodily over staccato beats and rhythmic, looped guitar riffs.
‘Right Back At Ya’ is ‘Wannabe’ for 2000, a new manifesto for a new incarnation of Britain’s biggest girl-group. ‘We’ve had a taste of what we all can achieve and we’re coming back for more’. The punchy rhythms are back, electronic blips decorate the layered drum patterns as Emma sings sweetly, ‘There’ve been tears along the way, but we’re still the best of friends / Never needed to pretend, because friendship never ends’. Mel B even graces us with a rap, ‘We’re coming right back at ya, no RIP. Not forgetting the days when we were all Wannabes’. This should have been the lead single from the album.
The Spice Girls ballads were always popular, and if timed perfectly Time Goes By could have been the group’s fourth Christmas number one. This piano-led ballad is the most sophisticated song they ever recorded. The simple and sparse arrangement really demonstrates the time they spent on perfecting vocals on this album as they are emotive and soulful – something that couldn’t be said about their previous efforts. An ode to an everlasting love, ‘love you for eternity, I will’, it’s a beautiful change of pace from the formulaic, yet effective R&B that most of the album contains.
‘If You Wanna Have Some Fun’ is similar to their earlier naughty persona, ‘Wink wink, nudge nudge, tell me do you like the rudey stuff?’. The girls sing about meeting a guy in a club and if he wants to take things further he’ll have to work to track them down and get their number. The funky backing track is built up with cheering crowds, cheeky bass guitar riffs, whistles and multiple layers of vocals. It eventually reaches a great crescendo and stops abruptly with Emma pleading, ‘Are you having fun?’.
So why did this album fare so badly? Partly because the group themselves had achieved so much and worked so hard, they had nothing left to prove. They didn’t subject themselves to a gruelling promotional schedule; just a couple of TV interviews and two performances of ’Holler’. The girls themselves had grown up, but also they had grown apart.
Melanie B’s solo album, Hot, had been defiantly released two weeks earlier, after much pleading by Virgin Records to delay it, and had pretty much sunk without a trace. Melanie C’s Northern Star was riding high in the charts and she had decided by this point that that was her priority. Ironically, after the failure of Forever to chart, her lowest charting single to date, ‘If That Were Me’, limped in at number eighteen. Overexposure had hurt their stock badly. Each of the five girls at this point were releasing solo singles and albums, battering the charts with varying success. They weren’t thinking strategically at this point and they were out for themselves.
Momentum is everything in pop. Look at Rihanna; she’s a machine, churning out an album per year to maintain her level of fame. It’s necessary, as every act’s shelf-life is limited, to maximise on the potential to make money and make lots of it. The Spice Girls hadn’t released a single for two years prior to ‘Holler’, their fan base had grown up without them and sadly left them behind. Many seemed to switch their attention to the adulation of five Irish boys who sang on stools dressed in black, rising at the key change towards the end of generic ballad after generic ballad.
If the album had been properly promoted when it went in at number two, with Westlife’s Coast To Coast taking the number one spot, the fate of the album could have been different. But the girls didn’t need to fight for success anymore. They had achieved more than any girl band before them ever had and all had ambitions of their own to follow, which is ultimately what they decided to do.
Forever sounds much better now than it did in 2000. Also, for those interested in the Spice Girls history, it plays as a storytelling of their fall from the dizzying heights of super-stardom. Some of the better tracks even made it into the new musical based on the Spice Girl’s songs, Viva Forever! It’s a great album that is a product of a maturing band wanting to move on from their past and create a new identity. Unfortunately it didn’t work, but it’s most definitely worth a listen.