Given the fact that 12 (or so) contestants are currently battling it out to be the latest in a line of TV talent show winners, it’s appropriate for the original Pop Idol to be releasing his first hits collection. Will Young has managed to carve a career out of making intelligent, sophisticated (albeit safe) pop that appeals to parents as much as it appeals to their young kids.
Whilst on the show, however, Young was the underdog, the opinionated posh bloke next to Gareth Gates‘ hermetically sealed boyband good looks and crippling stammer that was unburdened when he sang. When he won it was a tabloid outrage, making Young the first to experience not only the instant fame of winning a show such as Pop Idol, but also the lows of having your every move scrutinised in the press.
It’s this dichotomy that has marked Will Young’s career since his win seven years ago. The Hits may open with his first single – the insipid Westlife cover, Evergreen – but you get the feeling Young fought for it to be left out. Despite sales of over a million in its first week alone, Young was quick to denounce the song, along with his simpering cover of Light My Fire. Only the stately ballad, You & I, from his debut album From Now On, hinted at what was to come, Young finally sounding more relaxed and comfortable in his performance.
It’s true of most successful performers that the second album is the real deal-breaker, the one that can either set up a career or send you back to where you came from. But this maxim is even more pertinent with a TV talent show winner. Having been thrust into the spotlight with a weekly audience of over 10 million people, it stands to reason that a percentage of this audience would buy the first musical output – even Steve Brookstein had a Number 1 album. But that same audience can be as fickle as Simon Cowell himself.
Friday’s Child, Young’s second album, ditches the boyband covers in favour of a more mature and emotionally connected set of songs. Lead single Leave Right Now is something of a genre classic; mixing a yearning vocal, soft string swells and a chorus that can be belted back by vast audiences. The jazzy Your Game, meanwhile, foreshadowed Young’s more theatrical side, with wah-wah guitar, a choir and a barnstorming finale. The album’s title track is represented here in its original nine-minute incarnation, mushrooming from a George Michael-esque meditation on fame to an extended coda of flute, strings and cooing background vocals.
2005’s Keep On was his first to miss out on the Number 1 spot, possibly because lead single Switch It On wrong-footed the majority of his casual fan base. A strange choice of single, it mixes screeching harmonica with a recurring guitar riff reminiscent of George Michael’s Faith. In amongst it all that dichotomy raises its head again: “Please, this isn’t working and I can’t breathe… it’s all about the money/ It’s all about the fame/ It’s not about the way you live your life”. Keen to prop up the album’s sales, the gorgeous, keening ballad All Time Love followed, Young’s swollen vocals tracking a simple piano melody.
Two new tracks find their way onto the end of the album: recent single Hopes & Fears and the languid, reflective outro If It Hadn’t Been For Love. Both, despite his success, underline that The Hits finds Young at a crossroads. Last year’s Let It Go album may have given him his second Number 2 album in a row but only one of the singles graced the Top 10 and the title track missed the UK Top 50 altogether.
With rumours of a dance album with Groove Armada on the horizon as well as an album of Nöel Coward covers, it seems this compilation marks the end of the first chapter. Where he goes next will depend on how brave he’s feeling, but Young can look back at the majority of The Hits with pride, safe in the knowledge that Pop Idol might have given him the platform, but that he carved out his niche all on his own.