The music industry loves an anniversary. For every milestone, there’s a merchandising opportunity to go with it. Given that fact, we should have known that Eric Clapton would never be allowed to slip quietly into his seventies.
Since the big day on March 30 this year, God has nixed his own threat to retire from live work, striking up semi-residences at Madison Square Garden in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London. Meanwhile, there’s Forever Man, another career-humping greatest hits to stack atop the ones you’ve bought at 10-year intervals since time began.
Clapton hasn’t exactly thrown himself wholeheartedly into the project. Ostensibly, Forever Man bears all the hallmarks of a pension-topper waved through in minutes at a breakfast meeting, with the back catalogue then turned over to the breakers. There is no new material to be found here (not even the cursory brace of duds usually tacked on the end to snare the completists).
Despite that, this compilation doesn’t feel too tired, thanks to a format that sees its 51 tracks split into three discs and themes: Studio, Live and Blues. The refreshing upshot of this is that while most of the kneejerk songs are here, they’re not always in the context you’d be expecting. Layla, for instance, is represented by the rootsy take from 1992’s Unplugged, while Wonderful Tonight is a shimmering, unhurried treat from 24 Nights.
As the Studio disc opens with 2013’s Gotta Get Over, you twig the compilers’ decision to shuffle the chronology. It’s a canny move – nobody wants to hear Clapton slide from firebrand youth to over-comfortable dotage – but what’s frustrating is that so much of the guitarist’s vital early period is underrepresented or missing in action. No Yardbirds. No Bluesbreakers. No studio material from Cream, either: just the Live disc’s opening run of Badge, Sunshine Of Your Love and an admittedly thumping White Room (again, from 24 Nights). The red tape is a spiderweb, presumably, but a Clapton compendium cannot hope to feel complete without this stuff.
Still, with his solo career front and centre, Forever Man proves Clapton has always struck occasional gold, even on his drabbest albums and dullest periods. I’ve Got A Rock ’ N’ Roll Heart, from 1983, is a breeze, while 1989’s one-two of Pretending and Bad Love still zings. Even post-millennium, when EC was widely cast as a man drifting semi-comatose downstream, he turned in gems like 2010’s driving Run Back To Your Side and the head-to-head title track from 2000’s buddy album alongside BB, Riding With The King.
Which brings us to the Blues disc, and with less pressure to tick boxes, this tracklisting offers the most imaginative, least hackneyed material. The barrelling Last Fair Deal Gone Down is a belter, and likewise the shivering slide-blues of Ramblin’ On My Mind. The full-band thump of Before You Accuse Me has aged a treat, while Key To The Highway (again, with King) is a stripped, gripping finale.
Overall, Forever Man has more of a twinkle in its eye than your average route-one greatest hits package. God might be getting on, but here’s another potted reminder that when he turns it on, there’s still no one to touch him./o:p