“Progress” by Take That

Originally, Take That were one of the numerous crop of Nineties boy-bands. They were perhaps slightly more legit than most of their peers in the field, given that they did write nearly all of their own music, but they were still essentially a fairly standard-issue boy-band. They only really became noteworthy after their 1996 breakup, mostly because two of their original members, Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams, went on to become the greatest Soft Rockers of the 2000s in England.

Barlow reformed the band in 2006, but because Barlow had matured into a great talent in the intervening years, their new sound was far more sophisticated than it had been—suddenly, this half-forgotten teenybopper act was the premiere Soft Rock act in Britain. They released two albums with this line-up, reaching Number One on the British charts with some fantastic songs like “Shine” and “Greatest Day”, when an amazing thing happened. The band’s other big solo offshoot, Robbie Williams, who had become even more lauded as a solo act than Barlow, reconciled with his former bandmates and decided to rejoin the group. This album was the result of that partnership.

There’s a good reason this album was the best-selling British album of 2010, and the third best-selling album worldwide that year. If you thought the sound of the first two records by the reformed Take That had been leaps and bounds over their previous stuff, this album kicks it into the stratosphere. Indeed, this is probably the best Soft Rock album of the current decade so far…its only real competition for that title would be OneRepublic’s Native, and of course that was in the Adult Alternative vein of Soft Rock, not the old-school style this album captures.

The sound of the music is heavily influenced by Eighties Synth-Pop, with anthemic melodies over heavy electronic instrumentation, but it features an immense degree of musical sophistication that seems to combine the instrumental intensity of New Order or Depeche Mode, the passion and force of Foreigner or Journey, and the poetic eloquence of Sting’s solo career. If that sounds like a heady and thrilling blend of influences, it isn’t all this album has to offer: there’s also “Pretty Things”, which sounds like it could have stepped right off of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory.

The high points are the unforgettable singles “The Flood” and “Kidz”, but there are plenty of other great songs. Take “Eight Letters”, which, to cite the cliche, actually found a whole new way to say “I Love You”…one so obvious I’m surprised no song had used it before. The songs are mostly tormented love and/or breakup songs, but several of them actually take on a sardonic, even vaguely political tone, with almost violently intense music and apocalyptic imagery in the lyrics.

The album was ultimately followed up with a bonus EP, entitled Progressed. This was common practice in Pop music at the time, of course…Lady Gaga, Kesha and Usher had already done the same thing. The bonus EP’s material, although it featured more songwriting contributions from the other band members without Barlow or Williams, is generally up to the same high level as the original album, and it features two more outstanding hit singles, “When We Were Young” and “Love Love”.

Robbie Williams sings lead vocals on the majority of tracks on this album, and at the time it was popular among critics, due to his impressive solo achievements, to give him primary credit for the album’s quality. But Gary Barlow definitely contributed a lot to the album’s songwriting…those who’ve heard his later score for the Finding Neverland musical will recognize the seeds of that score in some of this album’s songs, particularly “The Flood” and  “When We Were Young”.

I almost can’t believe that this album exists. For such an achievement in what was by then a long-dead musical idiom to come out as lately as 2010 actually gives me hope that old-school Soft Rock might not be as dead as we think it is. In any case, I highly recommend this album to anyone who loves the Soft Rock and Synth-Pop sounds of the Eighties. Don’t be turned off because it seems to be coming from a boy-band…believe me, this is not at all the same band that made their Nineties records, even if it has the same name and line-up. These are seasoned professionals making some of the best British Pop music of the decade, and you owe it to yourself to hear them do it.

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