There’s a lot you can tell about this album without even having to hear it. Firstly, there’s the title, which of course suggests the growth of boyband to “manband” and how all earlier rifts between band members have now been filled it and long-forgotten. Then there’s the front cover, which adapts the iconic ‘Ape To Man’ image, and also enforces the idea of progress beyond human capability; the ability to fly. That’s what Take That are intending to do now, now that they’ve finally inserted the last remaining puzzle piece absent from Take That 2.0, they intend to soar above competition and accomplish things that, a few years ago, fans and casual listeners alike would’ve thought completely impossible.
‘Progress’ easily represents it’s creator’s most ambitious, daring, and eagerly anticipated project to date. Collaborating with Stuart Price, it’s lean, concise ten tracks suggest many risks were taken in the album’s conception and many more are to be taken with it’s choice of singles. Gone are the traditional album track staples of the Barlow Ballad and the safe soft/rock sound, and in their place lay a smouldering collection of apocalyptic electro-stompers and dance tracks with the sole intention of shaking the floor, collapsing the walls and smashing the ceiling tiles with it’s relentless hooks and gigantic choruses.
But ‘Progress’ strikes me as a concept album, and because of that, there are flaws, like the boys’ discovery of auto-tune and – in most cases – the only thing they’re looking for are, indeed, those relentless hooks and gigantic choruses, often forgetting they didn’t actually need to look that hard in the first place, as their last two albums show; the end result is a very messily produced, dubiously catchy collection of songs with an absence of Gary, an over-exposure of Robbie, and songs that seem far too … trashy to be pulled off by a group of their calibre. ‘Affirmation’, for example, sees Howard barely manage to keep up with the music as his painfully forced falsetto yelps like a wounded dog to a tempo that could easily have been pulled off much better if it was halved. And then of course there’s when Robbie has a go at being a rather perverse Fagin on the dullard ‘Pretty Things’ – “All those pretty things/Don’t scrap those pretty things/So delectable, why not collect them all?”, which wouldn’t sound out of place if it was sung by Ron Moody.
However, there are moments of pure genius on this record, like lead single and album opener ‘The Flood’. By using his favourite trick of switching to a minor key for the chorus, Gary creates a song that would make Wembley Stadium feel crowded – albeit with Take That fans – as once it’s brilliance is stacked up and compared to the rest of ‘Progress’, it seems a very safe, predictable choice for lead single that conforms to their typical sound, but something tells me the housewives and hardcore Take That fans will be subjected to quite a surprise with ‘Progress’, but whether it’s a good surprise is debateable.
‘The Flood’ marks where the common Take That ground ends as Mark picks up the reigns for ‘SOS’, a hyperactive, Muse-esque electro-rock with a storyline akin to Mark’s solo single ‘Four Minute Warning’, only they’re kind enough to give you five minutes in this one. Unfortunately, ‘SOS’ is nowhere near as charming nor as enjoyable as it’s predecessor: Mark’s raspy wheeze gives the impression he’s constantly out of breath, and not actually hearing him take breath is all the more worrying as he cries in a faux-operatic style “It’s a SOS/It’s an SOS/Oh yes, oh yes/It’s an SOS”. Robbie’s on board to add a layer of rockier urgency and attitude to proceedings but overall it exploits none of the traditional Take That lyrical and musical prowess.
Obviously, there is an inescapable presence of everyone’s favourite spotlight hogger on the record, and as a consequence, it’s clear a bit of Williams’ barmy lyricism makes it onto some tracks: “Oh no! I live with an Eskimo”, and “She blinded me with silence” are clearly his doing. But he does shine on some tracks, like one of the standouts of the album, the stentorian ‘Kidz’, which sees his kittenish hyperactivity put to good use amongst the frenetic chaos of the production. Mark also features on the verses, and his tones mix perfectly into the dark sub-bass and the revolutionist lyrics “Leave your thoughts and save yourself, you fool”, and “The talking heads, they took liberties/The monkeys learnt to build machines”.
On another of Gary’s few endeavours on ‘Progress’, namely ‘Happy Now’, on which he duets with Robbie, his talents appear squandered once again. But at least of ‘Happy Now’ on this one you can see he’s tried to get a word in, as the chorus is brilliant, but Robbie’s verses, which commit the ultimate pop crime of trying to squeeze far too many syllables onto one line, are quite frankly baffling; while Gary’s singing about some kind of elative experience “I feel myself fallin’/I’m feeling happy now”, Robbie’s muttering on about “super heavy elements” and being in a club where no-one is like him.
There are a few forgettable tracks too, like the lacklustre and underwhelming ‘Wait’, and the wasted opportunity that is the heavily electro-rock infused ‘Underground Machine’ (it’ll probably make for an amazing video, though. Something like ‘Thriller’ meets ‘Rock DJ’). Oh, believe me, it starts with more daring attitude than a drunk Essex lad out on the town with Ashley Cole with it’s jagged guitars riffs and thumping, march-time bass drums, but before long, Robbie turns the chorus into a complete camp-fest and it ends up sounding like the kind of song John Barrowman would cover in order to try and stay “modern and a bit hip”.
But the shining track for ‘Progress’, the one that single-handedly rescues the rest of the LP from being cast off as dying roses amongst some very large thorns, is Mark’s unassisted ‘What Do You Want From Me?’ It’s the only track on ‘Progress’ that truly hails from the raging synth-ridden 80’s whilst also sounding like it could be a massively popular hit in today’s market. It’s dark, rousing production perfectly contrasts the lighter, descending synths that fly over the top and once the beat is added, Mark hits full stride and gives his most powerfully sincere and deeply personal (considering recent revelations in his marriage, it’s clear this song is for his wife) vocal performance not just on ‘Progress’, but throughout his entire career.* By the end, it’s 80’s synth steals and explosive chorus have completely lifted the feel of the album.
I still stand by my original thought: ‘Progress’ is a concept album, so it was never going to be their most flawless work ever, but I commend the fact Take That have taken risks with the project, as they’ve rejected the idea of releasing another album of balladry and instead moved into a heavy electronic sound which gives them as a whole a much darker image. It’s very daring but they seem to have shot themselves in the foot. If you think about it, a lot of “non-teenagers”, (shall we call them?) complain about the electropop of today’s market and how no-one plays their instruments anymore, or even played an instrument to start with, but ‘The Flood’ is a very misleading lead single, as it will attract new fans as well as their older, “non-teenager” fans, who will only be not-so-pleasantly surprised to find the majority of the album is just what they’ve been complaining about. Sure the new direction will appeal to many, but it’s obvious some of their oldest, true-blue fans are going to hate it, or at least be so surprised by the whole project, sales on Take That’s next album may suffer for it (not by much, as you know).
On another note, I do feel Robbie’s presence over-crowded the share of the songs a bit; he has lead vocals on seven of the ten songs, poor Jason only has a small part on the awful ‘Affirmation’ and a hidden solo track latched onto the end of ‘Eight Letters’ called ‘Flower Bed’ (which is very good). Gary only has three, and Mark also has three, but even then, you feel like he’s over-used. The balance is all wrong, and that, plus the darker feel and tone to the album make it a very hard feat to listen to all of it at once. Once again I’d like to say I’m a natural Robbie and Take That 1.0 & 2.0 listener, so this is not a backlash at Robbie rejoining.
So yes, it’s a partial triumph, and the title ‘Progress’ is merited, but I feel that, in the search to be daring and to revitalise the group’s sound, Take That forgot they still needed to care for their die-hard fans who’ve been supporting them since 1994. It’s like there’s no bridging the gap, or transition, from contemporary pop to a more dance influenced sound, and the end result is a… I hate to say it, but for lack of a better word: a disappointment considering the hype involved; just wait till Lady GaGa actually gets round to releasing ‘Born This Way’ instead of getting groups hardcore fans to listen to it and hype it up even more than it already has, then we’ll see if she’s big enough to escape the Hype Machine. Sure, ‘Progress’ demonstrates just that: progress, growth, a venture into the unknown but ultimately lacks the maturity their last two albums had, which managed to be fun (‘Shine’, ‘How Did It Come To This’, ‘Up All Night’, ‘Hello’) as well as serious (‘The Garden’, ‘Said It All’, ‘Patience’, ‘Six In The Morning Fool’) without overdoing the childish boisterousness that features on ‘Progress’.
Album Rating: 6.1/10
Download These: ‘The Flood’, ‘Kidz’, ‘Who Do You Want From Me?’, ‘Flower Bed’.
*Although I will admit I nearly fell of my chair when I heard him wail “I still wanna have sex with you”.