Take That - Progress
Amidst all the post-break-up tabloid bitching, the media’s gleeful delight in the unfolding war of words between Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams, a key event lingers in the memory. With ‘Angels’ sending Robbie’s career into orbit (after a start so shaky you sensed he was about to call it a day), Gary was meeting him on the way down – a real Wiley E. Coyote versus Roadrunner moment; no need to guess who was dodging the ACME anvil. Of course, Gary was The Talented One, the songwriter, the band leader. Robbie, pissing it up with Oasis and plugging his own brand of wannabe indie pop was the also-ran. How could it turn out any other way? But as quickly as it had made him top dog the world turned its back on Gary Barlow. In an instant, a debut #1 album (the overly conservative 'Open Road') and single counted for nothing as arenas remained half full and the record company ran a mile. And here we are late 1999, Ian Wright’s Friday Night is Alright show and a tearful Barlow attempts to unpick where it all went wrong. Wright, the ultimate good guy, sympathises but he can’t stop his guest’s tears from welling up. And, the ultimate indignity, our Gary sits at the piano and trawls through a medley of Take That ballads to the studio audience’s delight. Despite Wright’s assurances, his best wishes for the future, Barlow isn’t stupid. It’s over. Pack your dreams away, Gaz. There’s a new sheriff in town and you ain’t welcome round these parts any more. It’s over.
Fast forward. I’d love to jump in the TARDIS and grab Gary Barlow as he left the ITV studios that night. “Don’t worry, my friend. One day, in the not too distant future, all of this will be yours again. Your albums will race out the door, stadiums will burst and your plasticky boy band will be re-assessed as a cool combo of grown-up songwriters and performers.” Eh? What are the chances? There’s a lovely bit in his autobiography where, having got themselves back together as a four piece in 2006 and announced a handful of UK arena comeback gigs, Barlow stays in bed the morning of the ticket sale, unable to bear the worst case. He’s woken by a phone call from the record company: the gigs sold out in seconds, can we add a dozen more? Oh, and and a few football grounds as well too just to meet the unprecedented demand? The rest (strings start to swell) is punch-the-air history.
So, the boy from Burslem is back. You couldn’t make it up. Snapping at each other like tanked-up sorority girls one minute, cuddling up in the ultimate bro-mance the next. Thankfully Progress, unlike comeback duet ‘Shame’, takes the slicked back pop-rock of the san-Williams albums (Beautiful World and The Circus) and hacks away at their MOR guide ropes. Progress rockets skyward on a chassis of flinty electro-pop, the ballads and drive-time fodder replaced with a nervy, jittering, re-modelled TT sound. With no real need to jump the tracks at this stage, it’s as brave as it is startling. But, with Robbie, impassioned but unpredictable, back in the ranks, its unpredictabilty makes undeniable sense.
Credit to new producer Stuart Price, a canny choice at the helm. Fresh from helping Kylie sell records again, he gives the boys room to write (all songs are credited to the five) and dares them to get their weird on. It’s largely successful, never less than compelling. Single ‘The Flood’ is a monster, a precision-tooled examination of past and future, melodrama blowing its self-examinations to widescreen: “Standing on the edge of forever, at the start of whatever, shouting love at the world / Laughing we were like cavemen, but we met the moon and the stars, then we forgave them.” Ludicrous. Pompous. Brilliant. This theme of beating the odds, of triumphing through every hardship, continues. Couched in an off-kilter combination of easy-to-spot Williams wordplay, Barlow sentiment and end-of-the-world epic daftness, Progress invites examination on a level it can probably justify. Them against us never sounded quite so invigorating. The closing ‘Eight Letters’, a pool of reflection couched in language at once so vague but undeniably poignant (“Raised on a feeling our lives will have meaning eventually”) is deeply moving and the closest thing to a ballad on offer here. It’s “This is all that matters now …” chorus will fill the airwaves at some point. The recent ITV documentary made painfully clear just how many scars remain from those early days, puppets to unseen masters, the race for fame and fortune one that brought a bigger price than expected. It’s all under the microscope here.
Time will allow a smarter understanding of what this schizoid work will eventually come to be. For now, at the very least, it fascinates. Robbie, of course, is everywhere, as he should be, centre stage with most of the best lines. At best, it peddles left-field pop of the very highest order. If the frenetic ‘SOS’ and the cyber-Bees Gees strut of ‘Happy Now’ represent the best of their new direction, Howard’s ‘Affirmation’ and Mark’s ridiculous ‘What Do You Want From Me’ (in which he screams “I still wanna have sex with you / I still wanna go out with you” – no kidding!) are evidence of styling racing ahead of content. No matter. There was always going to be debris and this was always going to be a messy coalition. No denying that the return of their most mercurial member has precipitated yet another transformation. The flexibility impresses; they change shape with the skill of a freak show contortionist. With the temptation to over-state the matter and call their reunion record, say, ‘Victory’ or ‘Revival’, something clumsy and just too triumphant, they go for the measured (Barlow, no doubt) approach of ‘Progress’. So far, it seems to say, so good. They may not be back, in this particular formation, for good but as far as temporary thrills go, Take That are absolutely credible and impossible to ignore.