Keeping in with the British theme, we're moving back into the current millennium with Take That and their 2010 album Progress.
Progress marked the return of former band member and solo star Robbie Williams into the Take That fold for a record that spawned a proper return to form for the nineties heartthrobs. It's an album that got mixed reviews from critics, but personally speaking, is one of their best bodies of work in an awful long time.
The first glimpse we get of a reformed Take That is on lead single and album opener The Flood which is unlike any previous efforts from the Manchester fivesome. With its big production sound, it’s a lot different to the ballads of old and with Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow taking lines in turn, you get the sense that this track’s certainly a statement. It’s got a properly killer bridge and that catchy hook is guaranteed to get you singing. There's an argument to suggest that this is one of the finest pop tracks ever written, especially given the strong vocal performances all-round, not least from Barlow and Williams. The entire record is a statement as on some of the following tracks such as SOS, the typical ballads of old like Patience and Pray are nowhere to be seen. Instead, they’ve been replaced by dystopian synth romps with a gleeful Mark Owen on vocals, backed by the rest of the band that sound fantastic with a simple refrain and clever verses combining to create something brilliant.
There’s no finer example of those dystopian synth romps than the thumping Kidz which helps to demonstrate the new direction Take That took when this record was released ten years ago. With a properly catchy chorus and a harsh techno backing, it’s so left-field of the band’s normal work that it becomes a standard tune as soon as it starts. Both Owen and Barlow share the vocals on this track and this combination is used to great effect with the two men bouncing off each other on every verse and chorus. Mark Owen's aggressive chorus is a particular highlight lyrically and vocally, as well as across the whole song where Barlow's brilliant lyrics are used to great effect with lines on a restricted society painting the picture of dystopia perfectly. Happy Now, with its spoken and robotic vocal, combined with a properly electronic backing is a small reminder of Williams' own Rudebox, but Take That's execution is an awful lot cleaner. This particular track's two sides make it one of the album's most complete with Barlow's voice full of hope and glee on the song's lighter forever catchy refrain.
The futuristic Underground Machine with its dark guitar riff and stiff drums and the equally restricted vocals are a reminder of the sci-fi scenes that this album is built on. By leaning on the electronic sound compared to the stripped back ballads, it reflects the band moving in a more modern direction, helped along by Robbie Williams’ seamless transition back into the band on this record and this song particularly. At that moment, it returns to the more typical Take That vocal harmonies that truly allow the band to leave their mark on a fantastic track. A couple of tracks later, What Do You Want From Me? sees a first return to the typical ballad, but with added synth sounds to make it fit with the rest of Progress. It’s the first show of vulnerability and emotion compared to the dystopian lyrics of the earlier parts of the first side. To be honest, it’s a nice change of pace from the thumping Kidz and SOS and Mark Owen’s sincere and powerful vocal is one of the album’s best.
Towards it back-end, Progress switches vocal focus away from Williams and Owen to Howard Donald on the supreme Affirmation. It’s more upbeat than the album’s first side with Donald’s higher pitch a welcome change, but it marks the only time over the ten tracks that he gets a song on his own. With such classics such as Never Forget under his belt, it would've been nice to see a bit more of him here. Nonetheless, with a simple guitar riff, there’s a bit of The Strokes creeping through, which greatly helps to lift this track to new heights. The album’s best moment comes within its closing track, Eight Letters, especially thanks to Barlow's velvet-smooth vocal. Whilst it’s a reminder of the Take That of old with something more innocent and vulnerable, its execution smashes any of their other ballads out of the park. It’s a lot more gentle and remarkably light and even with the excellent vocal harmonies and piano on the chorus, remains soft to the ear. Eight Letters is a great metaphor for the band’s newfound unity with an incredible message reflected in the simplest of lines:“And when I went away, what I forgot to say, was all I had to say: eight letters, three words, one meaning.”
As a record, Progress certainly trumps previous Take That records on variety of tracks and individual strength. The return of Robbie Williams, as well as some supreme songwriting and incredible production sends this album into the musical stratosphere and confirms its place as one of the best albums of the last decade.
If you want to pick up a copy, I've leave an Amazon link here: https://amzn.to/3368Rs7
Or, here's a Spotify link below:
More musical magnificence to come next week!
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