Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Listening Post: Progress - Take That

Let me make one thing quite clear; I've never knowingly bought a Take That album. Honestly. No, wait...I bought their first 'greatest hits' collection years ago, but that was purely for professional purposes during my days s mobile DJ. I certainly never played it all the way through, oh no. 'Never Forget' now and again maybe (awesome song). Soon after firebrand Robbie Williams left the group and set off on his own meteoric, unpredictable solo career back in the mid-1990s at their height of the band's powers, Take That called it a day and only reformed a few years back when, ironically, Robbie's own career was on the wobble a bit. In the intervening period we've all been a bit bored witless, let's face it, by Robbie whining about Gary, by Take That whining about Robbie and yada yada repeat to fade. It was years ago, guys, get over it. Now, it seems, they have. After two successful but (probably) very saccharine Robbie-less albums, the hatchet has been buried and with the Robster's career having perked up a bit in the last year (if hardly touching the heights he scaled a few years before) old grudges have been swept aside, the boys have kissed and made up and they're all back together in one big happy pop family and they've made a new CD together as a five-piece. Popular wisdom might have expected a few more sloppy lurve ballads with Robbie doing the odd vocal and maybe a couple of harmless pop boppers guaranteed not to frighten the horses. No way. No way at all. The result of this unlikely and potentially unholy reunion is 'Progress', a startlingly good album of generally-uptempo pop tunes which, to all intents and purposes, is the new Robbie Williams album with a few familiar voices sharing vocal duties. 'Progress' is a daringly-different album, its influences laying deep in the world of the electro-pop confusion of Robbie's least acclaimed album, the misunderstood 'Rudebox', marrying some shimmering and urgent pop tunes with Robbie's often-manic vocal contortions and little bits of the other nice lads thrown in for good measure. Quite what the Mums and their older daughters who've taken the band back to their collective bosoms again these last five years will make of these jangling, angular songs remains to be seem. In many ways 'Progress' is the album Take That needed to make if they weren't going to tumble into the easy listening abyss. Whether their fanbase will be prepared to make the leap of faith and take the journey with them remains to be seen...

Ladies and gentlemen, I am hear to tell you that 'Progress' kicks some serious ass. In a pop year horribly dominated by samey, mid-tempo r'n'b or, worse, grisly rap nonsense, proper pop music - you know, songs with words and stuff - has had trouble get a real look in. Hopefully 'rogress' will go some way towards reminding the easily-led Britsh public of the importance of craftsmanship in music, creative lyrics and intelligent musicianship - not just nicking bits off old songs and shouting over them or else borrowing the same old rumpty-tumpty r'n'b rhythmn. So there. 'Progress' kicks off with lead single 'The Flood' (see the promo video below), a powerful majestic track which evokes 'Rule the World' and some of the band's more recent ballads and yet, thanks to Robbie's distinctive vocals, it's got a bit more bite than normal. Clearly Top 40 and the boys have had to make do with a number two position whilst number 1 is occupied by something forgettable by Rihanna. Umber-ella indeed. The gloves come off as 'The Flood' gives way to 'SOS', a thumping, urgent cry for help powered by Mark Owen's child-like vocals duelling with Robbie's gutsier tones. 'The Wait' seems to return us to safer territory with a gently tinkling paino intro before a big crunching bass roars in dragging a gloriously rolling chorus with it. 'Kidz' rattles along with a crunching miltary beat with Owen and Williams spitting out the song's cautionary lyrics. A gentle synthline, evoking early Depeche Mode/Erasure, underpins the charming and delicate 'All the Pretty Things' and my own favourite track, the skewed and not-quite-right 'Happy Now' with its irresistible chorus is followed by Robbie at his most swaggering on the driving 'Underground Machine.' On 'What Do You Want From Me?' Mark Owen comes clean about his "difficult year" and clearly and very publicly declares his devotion to his wife and his acceptance of his own very public stupidity - "I still think I'm in love with you, I still think you're the one for me." 'Affirmation' is urgent and pumping electronica and the album closes off with a couple of concessions to fan expectations as the band dial it down a bit in 'Eight Letters' and the bonus track, Jason Orange's rather delicate 'Flowerbed.'

No doubt about it, 'Progress' is just a great pop album. It's already selling by the shedload - fastest-selling album of the century, I understand - and it'll be interesting to see how well-received it is once the fans have settled down to listen to it because it really won't be what they might be expecting or even wanting. But the return of Robbie has clearly been a shot in the arm for the band and for Robbie himself. 'Progress' is a real and much-needed shake up for the band who were in danger of drifting into Westlife territory. The future's looking good. But is Robbie back for good? Only time will tell. One thing's for sure, if the fans give the album a chance and have patience - and I pray they will - they'll find it's a collection of songs they'll never forget and despite the fact it doesn't contain a million love songs, they'll most likely agree that it's probably Take That's greatest day. Could it be magic? Hang on...can't think of any more Take That songs so I'll just leave it there. Who'd have thunk I'd be so unreservedly recommending an album by a former boy band as quite possibly the defining pop album of the year? World's gone mad, I tell you.

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