As the 21st century dawned, the odds were stacked against Spice Girls. First, their solo careers had got off to great starts – with Mel C’s Northern Star, in particular, doing serious business from the middle of 1999. The stop-start recording schedule of their third album, Forever, led to the abandonment of early tracks; but the most significant challenge was that the music scene had changed dramatically since the release of their second album, Spiceworld.
Heading off on a different path
Initial plans to record again with Richard Stannard and Matt Rowe during and straight after the 1998 world tour lead to the single “Goodbye,” the last of Spice Girls’ three consecutive Christmas No. 1s in their homeland, but agreement about a future musical direction splintered soon afterwards. Further sessions the following year again appeared to stall, and it was only the group’s decision to start work on a new urban sound that gained momentum. The all-out pop tracks they’d recorded were scrapped, even if it made obvious commercial sense to include “Goodbye” in the final album, and one song from hit-maker Elliot Kennedy, which survived the cull in a reworked form.
Shipping in Darkchild, aka Rodney Jenkins, and production legends Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis – famous for their work with Janet Jackson – made strategic sense, but it was hard to second-guess if Spice Girls would bring their aging fan-base with them. “Goodbye” aside, the tracks that make up Forever offer a choppy, urban overlay to a set of rough diamonds. The ballads – “Weekend Love,” “Time Goes By” and “Let Love Lead The Way” – are among the band’s best, with the latter pairing up with “Holler” as Forever’s only single. Emma Bunton’s distinctive vocals weave in and out of the mix, drawing the sound back to a pop heartland, but therein lies something of the challenge: it can sound as if the four voices struggle to effortlessly blend in the way they once did. It’s almost as if each member is anxious to make themselves heard or even to head off on a different path.
But the production, so distinctly of its time, has some fine moments. “Holler” is a choppy pop romp that sounded great on radio and gave Spice Girls their final UK No. 1 to date (though the US ignored the track completely). The Darkchild influence dominates that track and five others here, but it’s actually the two Jam and Lewis cuts – “If You Wanna Have Some Fun” and atmospheric slowie “Oxygen” – that have dated better. There’s a lightness of touch on those two songs that adds a glance back to a fresher, less mannered time. It’s a shame plans to issue “If You Wanna Have Some Fun” as a single never came good; it could have transformed the whole album.
A barrage of brilliant memories
Forever struggled to live up to the enormous commercial expectations set by the band’s two previous releases. It still sold millions around the world, but it was a fraction of the number that Spice and Spiceworld had generated just a few years earlier. Emerging on November 6, 2000, Forever seemed like a record struggling to find its moment: an uncertain step onto unfamiliar terrain, with creative ambition seemingly dragging each member in a different direction while they still tried to stay tight as a group. On the all-out pop closer “Goodbye” – recorded 18 months earlier – things spectacularly burst back into life. That said it all.
Spice Girls are a pop phenomenon and there’s enough of the band’s soaring personality on display here to keep things surprising, but the effortful production often threatens to swamp that spirit. The group’s longevity and reputation were best served by a barrage of brilliant memories and their ongoing (if intermittent) commitment to touring that continues to this day. Forever is an interesting and occasionally great record, but Spice Girls perhaps knew that it was an impossible album title to live up to.