Queen operates within a very odd and unique space in rock history, as it is simultaneously incredibly overrated and grossly underrated. The group is music’s equivalent to the ’90s Atlanta Braves: amazing talents and accomplishments, but not quite in the pantheon of the all-time greats. Even though Queen had transcendent moments, like its performance at Live Aid, it was never a band that got the attention that Led Zeppelin or The Who did, despite the fact that every positive comment ever spoken about the band has been in the most extreme superlative. Freddie Mercury is consistently ranked as the greatest frontman of all time, while Brian May is considered to be one of the patron saints of shredders everywhere. There’s a certain disconnect between their subjective worth and their objective value that doesn’t exist with any other band.
Queen has sold over 300 million albums worldwide, but it only went to number one on the charts once in the United States. The band was one of the first musical acts to tour South America, thereby opening up the oyster that was the Latin American markets, but it also didn’t sell out shows as often as the other big bands of the time. Despite Mercury’s undeniable charisma, the band never inspired radical fandom that bands like Metallica, Zeppelin, and KISS did. They had a brief window where they should have been bigger in America than they were (1975-1980), but after that they bottomed out very quickly, as every subsequent album after The Game failed to crack the top ten in the States. Because of these facts, and because the group didn’t get the commercial love that it probably should have, reviewers and musical historians grant Queen an unlimited amount of praise in order to retroactively validate everything that Queen did. The question remains, “If Queen was as great a band as they are remembered to be, why weren’t they bigger than they were?”.
With its newest compilation album Forever, Queen finally answers this question. The Queen that is the most recognizable and iconic, isn’t the real Queen. The Queen that is the most fun is the bombastic Queen that you can rock out to à la Wayne’s World. It’s the Queen that exclaims with a confident vitriol, “So you think you can love me and leave me to die?”. In terms of commercial appeal, the most successful Queen is the Queen that shouted out “Another One Bites the Dust”. The Queen that initially got themselves noticed was the Queen that sang about tommy guns and prostitutes.
Unfortunately, that was only a fraction of what Queen really was. Being made up of technically proficient and classically trained musicians, Queen infused into rock music a sense of operatic theatrics that didn’t exist before them. The problem is that this classical approach can only last for so long before it becomes stale and laborious to listen to. The Queen that is ultimately forgotten and ignored in favor of other hits like “Another One Bites the Dust”, and “Fat Bottomed Girls”, is the band that sang about astrophysics and soapy love ballads, the latter of which apparently made up half the bands’ catalogue.
If that’s not true, however, that is the portrait that Forever ultimately illustrates. Being a compilation of re-mastered and overlooked songs taken from across the band’s 20 years together, Forever gives a portrayal of Queen that isn’t indicative of the bands’ flamboyance and charisma. The problem with releasing a greatest hits album comprised entirely of forgotten songs is that it’ll only appeal to diehard fans of the band, many of whom would probably already own the albums that these deep cuts were originally recorded on, thus negating any need to listen to Forever. At the risk of sounding superficial, any compilation that contains just as many songs from Innuendo as it does from A Night at the Opera probably won’t attract any new fans.
Forever comes in two editions: a standard single disc version and a two disc, 36-track chore that takes almost two and a half hours to get through. Because of the length and the track listing, Forever is a bloated album of greatest misses that never at any point comes together as an album, focusing too much on the classical side of Queen. The result of this lopsided focus is that too many songs sounding astonishingly indistinguishable from each other. There are no traces of the frenetic mania and arena-filling intrigue that has become the stereotypical Queen; instead, such mania and intrigue are replaced by a very by-the-numbers, boring overview of the group at its most forgettable. As an example of these bad choices, one need only look to the replacement of songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Another One Bites the Dust” with “Las Palabras de Amor” and “Who Wants to Live Forever”, the latter of which was written for the movie Highlander.
The album is not forged entirely of unknown songs from obscure albums, such as “One Year of Love” and “Is This the World We Created?” Beloved classics “Somebody to Love” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” do make appearances, but because they are adjacent tracks, Forever immediately goes back to being a laborious chore to listen to. Certain tracks do bring a familiar aura of zest and zeal to them that make them stand out amongst a sloppy collection of uninspired and subdued lullabies. “Let Me in Your Heart Again” and “Sail Away Sweet Sister” bring a brief reminder of a more dynamic and charismatic Queen, the kind of band that should have been represented on this album.
It appears that on this compilation, the surviving members of the band sought to cultivate this newest compilation around a certain sound, one that broke away from the stereotypical image of Queen as a hard rocking band that threw everything it had into every performance. However, that is the most beloved and incandescent portrait of Queen, one that combines its patented vaudevillian approach to music with hard rock. Incidentally, the more Queen moved away from that sound, beginning with 1980’s The Game, the worse their output became.
However, the remastering effort here is superb, fully accentuating Mercury’s vocal range and breathing new life into his voice. Despite this, the album is left without much of a soul, as it’s filled with impersonal and unknown songs that seek to introduce us to a version of Queen that, quite frankly, isn’t all that exciting. Overall, Forever is an album with no real ambition, and design. More importantly, it’s one that lacks heart, an irony that contradicts the claim that Forever is an ode to Freddie Mercury, a performer who bore his heart on stage and left nothing behind.
Unlike Led Zeppelin’s Mothership or any of the Kissology sets, Forever isn’t a particularly well organized compilation album, nor does it inspire listeners to go out and explore the band’s full catalogue the way the former two did. At best, the album serves as a microcosm of this overrated/underrated duality that defines Queen. When we examine bands like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, or even KISS, we look back and marvel over their entire careers. With Queen, there are only certain moments here and there that stick out: “Bohemian Rhapsody”, its performance at Live Aid, and the interspersed moments of spectacular grandeur laden within an otherwise static lattice. The Queen that is easy to fall in love with isn’t the Queen that existed; the Queen that existed is more in line with the Queen that’s portrayed on Forever, a band that is skilled technically, but one that will ultimately leave you wanting much more than what the group delivered.