One of the advantages of having this project take far longer than imagined is that I get to see the reputations of artists tilt and upend as the years go by. At the point where I began writing, when the Take That story was, essentially, the Robbie Williams story, “Forever Love” was pop’s most pyrrhic No.1. Gary Barlow – pop’s great white Ivor-Novello-garlanded hope – achieves his apex moment without realising how deeply pop had changed around him, and his legacy is washed away. Listen to my works, ye mighty, and despair. Or maybe just doze off.
Times and reputations change, and Barlow was more resilient and canny than I gave him credit for. But “Forever Love” does not change – it’s as tedious and cautious as ever. Gary Barlow at this point had the attention of the music world, full credit for his band’s success, a ready-made fanbase, and what he gave us was… this. The safest, most defensive solo artist play possible. Predictable enough to release a ballad, but who expected such a dishrag of one?
Great ballads – and decent facsimiles of same, like “Back For Good” – often reach that greatness by bringing to intense life an emotionally specific situation. Conversely, it’s hard to work out what’s going on in “Forever Love”, and the pace is so sluggish it’s harder to care. Barlow at first seems to be getting his Elton on, playing the wounded man emoting at the piano. But he also appears convinced he’s written an epic, and slathers the song in unearned pomp, throwing in pauses and crescendos and wordless breaks – that’s what great songwriters do, right? His voice can’t do what he needs it to – the final lurch into falsetto is ghastly – but the song is a baggy lump in any case.
With hindsight, Gary’s main error was one of timing: peek ahead a few years and we’ll see a band conquer the country with a run of lardy heart-tuggers that might make Barlow proud. But 1996 had seen pop embrace different virtues – Number Ones that were aggressive, modern and populist, if rarely all at once. What “Forever Love” – the most irrelevant No.1 of the 90s so far – showed was that Gary Barlow was lost in this world. In the immediate fight for Take That’s legacy, Robbie’s first solo single – “Freedom” – was a month off release, but he’d already won.