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Will Young – Like a River


Where do we file this one? Flop single, or album track that should have had full single status? Does anyone care but us? Should we class buzz singles as proper singles? Especially if they actually have a video? Does the artist actually care? And if not why should we?

By 2015 it seemed that Will Young had given up on the concept of a single. In 2008 he announced that Changes was going to be his last single release on CD – a rather wise move given the death of CD singles and rise of digital. However, after this Will’s fortunes on the singles chart dwindled just as fast as the amount of physical copies sold. His next release missed the top 30, the following one didn’t even make the top 50 and then the single leading his greatest hits hit a lowly no.65 in 2009.

His fortunes were briefly revived when Jealousy was (deservedly) a big top 5 hit in 2011, yet somehow all the follow up singles from Echoes – despite coming with b-sides and remixes – flopped, reaching numbers 83, 72 and 115 respectively. Come album number six – his first (and, as it turns out, only) album for Island Records, fans were hoping for a Jealousy sized hit.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. No-one – and by this point certainly not Will and his team – seemed to know what a single was anymore, and so Love Revolution, released to promote his upcoming album, was thrown onto iTunes as a solitary one track affair. Stopping just outside the published chart at no.103, it appeared that Will was now regarded as an ‘albums artist’.

Given this flop, and the slight division in Will’s fanbase that Love Revolution created, it seemed that a quick fix was needed – and so before we knew it up popped Like A River, complete with a proper video. Except this wasn’t a proper single – instead it was just a ‘buzz’ song, an instant gratitude track made available when you pre-ordered the album. And what a shame that was.

Probably the best track on 85% Proof, Like A River is a downtempo ballad with a dark menacing beat and wonderful strings. Inspired by memories of being bullied at prep school, the song tells about letting go of his inner demons and it showcases just why Will is one of the UK’s absolute best pop singers. Keeping things controlled and understated for the first half, his vocals begin to fly just as the strings start to build, leading to a glorious Pop Moment when he unleashes that falsetto on “taking me” and everything cuts out almost entirely, leaving just that sinister beat.

The accompanying video – a take on Theseus and the Minotaur – is equally dramatic, filmed in black and white with a shirtless Will showing a bit of arse crack (hot!) staring around menacingly with a knife, chalky face and netting over his head (not as hot) before wandering round a labyrinth and then doing battle with and slaying the Minotaur. Thankfully he’d appeared to grow back that armpit hair that was infamously airbrushed out of the 85% Proof album cover.

Had this been pushed as an actual single, I have no doubt that it would have been a hit (well, a no.50 hit), but it was still a much better lead track for 85% Proof and was more indicative of the album’s contents than Love Revolution.

Further tracks would be released from the album, but that’s all they seemed to be – tracks. There were videos for each but no actual package to make fans part with cash and push a song up the charts – and without the now necessary streaming numbers required to create a hit, all that happened was a mild spike in the album’s performance at the lower end of the chart. While a bit of an effort was made with Joy – an actual remix! – nobody at Island bothered to make it available to buy, and so Will’s discography on Wikipedia ended up with a few more “-” marks rather than numbers.

All of this once again raises the wider question: should artists still care about releasing singles? To my mind, yes – yes they should. The scramble for pre-orders might help with a high first week position – and indeed 85% Proof debuted at the top – but without the visibility provided by at least one bona fide hit, it’s hard to keep the momentum going. Innovative and brilliant videos – which Will has made more of than any other recent pop star – sadly don’t do much to help sales if they’re the only part of the promotional machine that’s working.

So what’s next for Will? Well, there’s no denying the man is practical. Without a label for the first time since 2002, he’s self-releasing a covers EP ahead of his appearance on this year’s season of Strictly Come Dancing. This is the perfect thing to do, for there are few things more entertaining than Will Young being charming on prime-time television. However long he lasts – and I’d be willing to bet he’ll make it to Blackpool at the very least – it’s a chance to reconnect with the wider audience who’ve forgotten how brilliant he is. It worked for Sophie Ellis Bextor, and so could have worked for Rachel Stevens if she’d bothered to make a record afterwards. But for whoever releases album number seven, please make an effort. It’s not too late to take back the singles chart, and if nothing else it will mean fewer “-” marks on that Wikipedia discography.

will-young-85-proof-coverEntered chart: Did not chart

Who could sing this today and have a hit? I can imagine Nick Jonas – were he to go down the dark and broody route – stopping off here.

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