Saturday, November 27, 2010

Album Review: Take That - Progress (5/5)

The cover of Progress features Take That posed as the "ascent of man" diagram, a fitting title and image for their sixth album, which has Robbie Williams finally reunited with his former bandmates and represents another evolution in the group's sound. While the former was expected, announced months ago, the latter was not, making Progress not only an exciting album for Take That fans, but for fans of pop music in general. Where Beautiful World and The Circus were expertly crafted, lovey-dovey, ballad-heavy adult pop, Progress is messy, neurotic, up-tempo electronic pop. Truly exciting stuff.

The first half of the album is vocally collaborative, with Robbie, Gary Barlow, and to a lesser extent, Mark Owen, sharing lead duty on each song. It also has the more accessible songs, such as the grand first single, "The Flood," which is quickly becoming my favorite song of the year. The lovely "Wait" is a dramatic dance pop song with a '90s dance beat that recalls Jocelyn Enriquez's "A Little Bit of Ecstasy" and sad strings that sound very Pet Shop Boys. "Pretty Things" is lighter synth pop, a bit Erasure-esque. All of these are just great songs.

"SOS" and "Kidz" are more manic and dark, with the former tying together fuzzy synths and electric guitar amid Mark and Robbie's insistent vocals, and the latter going for a sort of '80s new wave electro with a marching beat and even fuzzier production. Either would make a good second single for the album. Lyrically, I'm not sure what these opening songs are about (even though I have the lyrics sheet!). They seem to impart general vibes rather than a coherent message--something a bit political (taking a cue from the recent Linkin Park album, there's a JFK sample in "SOS"), self-referential ("The Flood" sounds like it's describing some angst related to the band) and apocalyptic.

The second half of the album gives each member a chance at lead vocal, and thematically these songs are generally easier to wrap your head around, the exception being Robbie's "Underground Machine," during which he sings "oh what a beast, oh what a man" over ominous, strutting electro. It's a weird, but great song. Mark's "What Do You Want from Me" packs an emotional punch, especially if you're aware of his struggles with fidelity and addiction over the past year. Although he's said the song was written before those times, you can't help but think it informed his performance. "Affirmation" and "Flowerbed" find Howard Donald and Jason Orange struggling with their own personal insecurities over a pulsing dance beat and a softer electronic haze, respectively.

"Eight Letters" is worth special mention. It's clear that Robbie wrote this song, as it directly reflects his decision to leave the group and, looking back, how he never acknowledged his emotions when doing so, having been so angry at the time. Sure it's a bit sappy (the "8 letters, 3 words, 1 meaning" clearly mean "I love you"), but it's a nice catharsis to close the album. Importantly, despite the song representing Robbie's point of view, Gary sings the lead vocal, a tacit acknowledgment of them having healed the rift between them. If "Shame" was their way to wink and make up, "Eight Letters" is the more meaningful representation of their reconciliation. We can only hope it holds, so that in 2 years we get another brilliant follow-up album.

Worth checking out if you're really into Take That is the recent ITV documentary Look Back, Don't Stare. It covers the last year of the band's life from the time Robbie rejoined the group through the production of Progress, providing a deeper appreciation for this album and what it took to get the group to the point that it could make it.

Progress cements what I find most interesting about Take That. When the group was formed in the early '90s it was as a pre-packaged product (which the group acknowledges in Look Back)--a group of five fresh-faced young men who could sing (mostly) and dance (generally) well enough to sell a few records to teenage girls. Of course, they became a phenomenon, despite representing what many would call the worst impulse of mainstream pop music. Yet through the years they have evolved into genuinely talented pop musicians. Gary Barlow was always interested in songwriting, but through the years the others have become so as well. It's great to see (at least as depicted in the film) that their music has become a true collaboration, especially given that the dominance of certain members (Gary, this means you) was one of the principal reasons they broke up in 1996.

The band deserves much credit for this gutsy move away from MOR balladry to a more cutting edge, experimental sound. Credit Gary and company for their willingness to take the risk, Robbie for his penchant for pop weirdness and producer du jour Stuart Price for pulling them together into a bold, updated sound that makes the group sound fresher than they ever have before. After helming brilliant albums for Scissor Sisters and Kylie Minogue (and a less brilliant but still enjoyable album for Brandon Flowers), Price is undoubtedly the most exciting producer of the year.

Best: The Flood, Wait, Eight Letters, Kidz, SOS, What Do You Want from Me?, Happy Now, Affirmation


J.Mensah said...

I like this too, probably not as much as you though lol -- "Wait" is such an awesome song. But overall, better than Scissor Sisters? cause you have that 5* too.

ww_adh said...

I haven't decided which is my favorite yet, but I guess I'll have to soon. I also consider The National's album a 5-star album, even though I gave it 4.5 at the time I reviewed it.

J.Mensah said...

There's an extedned edition of High Violet on the UK iTunes, with 4 four new tracks and an alternative version of Terrible Love. I fianlly decided to get it.