There’s a brilliantly poignant moment at the end of John Dower’s 2003 Britpop documentary Live Forever when Sleeper front woman Louise Wener recalls the moment the Britpop bubble burst. It was all that pesky Robbie Williams‘ fault. Fresh from his split from Take That, the cheeky northern chappie had taken to bleaching his hair, wearing track suits and had even adopted a ladish swagger. More importantly, he’d started hanging out with leader of the gang, Liam Gallagher.
The release of his weddings and funerals staple, Angels, was so littered with Britpopisms that Wener and co apparently realised there was no going back; the scene had outstayed its welcome and had been well and truly accepted, nay dragged, into the mainstream.
‘Indie’ has been loitering around the Now! albums end of the musical spectrum ever since and this, Williams’ first album with his old band since 1995, is testament to that.
Take That minus Williams have had an incredible comeback since they released the wonderfully epic Patience to relatively little fuss back in November 2006. There have been two albums since then, but this is the one we’ve all been waiting for. Gary, Mark, Jason and Howard were always the more sensible ones; they sang the ballads or, in the case of the latter two, did the dancing and kept largely schtum. It was Robbie who bounced around singing the school disco gems like Everything Changes. He even attempted to rap, and his winking grin oozed youthful energy. So while their mature, perfectly polished pop has provided a welcome alternative to the X Factor dross clogging up the charts, it was missing that little spark.
That spark only flickers a couple of times throughout the 11 tracks on Stuart Price-produced Progress, but when it does it burns deep. Gary Barlow tried extra hard with this record, writing songs that would impress his returning band mate because while there are plenty of glossy, Magic FM-friendly, feel good tracks, there’s also an unshakable injection of ‘indie’. There’s the soaring, atmospheric Coldplay-esque backings we’ve come to expect, but there’s more. From the electro-infused, distorted Goldfrapp-ish Happy Now to the unsettling, taunting Pretty Things, it’s far removed from the happy-go-lucky sound they crafted in the ’90s.
Something was always going to have to give – now in their 40s, they were hardly going to leap around in vests and devil horns, singing Barry Manilow covers. And while the teenage girls who swooned over them first time around would probably have broken down at the prospect of a rougher, quirkier sounding Take That, somehow it works, and these tracks could be woven into a greatest hits record without sounding too absurd.
The best moments of the record come courtesy of little Mark Owen. His camp, nasal vocals find a comfortable home in What Do You Want From Me, an emotional upbeat single-in-waiting. “I still wanna belong to you… I still want to have sex with you, I still want to go out with you,” he pleads which, following the recent tabloid allegations about his personal life, could be interpreted as a rather public apology to his wife.
Kidz sees him become hilariously aggressive. “What you looking, you wanna bit of that?” he sneers. The Mark ‘n’ Robbie double act is reunited in SOS, a stomping track that really announces Williams’ return, with a duet that bounces Owen’s odd whiny vocal off Williams’ familiar, no nonsense voice.
The rest of the album is littered with snippets of Williams, acting as a constant reminder that he’s back. Sometimes it’s completely unnecessary, added only because… well, he’s back, meaning he ends up sounding like The B52s‘ Fred Schneider, cropping up every now and then to blurt out the odd line.
Closing track Eight Letters brings things back into focus. A calming, classy track with a slow, subtle electro beat over it and a return of that Coldplay soaring piano, it’s fronted by Barlow and is bound to make the ‘most popular first dance’ lists with its cheesy adage “Eight letters, three words, one meaning”. It flows with such ease, it feels like normal service is resumed; the brains behind the operation is back in control. He’s been humouring his band mates for 10 tracks, holding out for this.
It might not be the explosion many were hoping for, but Progress sees Take That exploring and experimenting. The real test will be the reunited band’s next record… if Williams stays around that long.