Be careful what you wish for. Since they returned in 2006 (has it really only been four years?), one story, one character has threatened to overshadow Take That‘s every move. Two huge albums, massive live tours and some genuinely brilliant songs hasn’t exactly made their reunion a failure, but still that elephant in the room wouldn’t go away. And now, very publicly, he’s back. From outer space. Or LA at least.
As their recent documentary showed, the return of Robbie isn’t the complete no brainer that it was painted as. The four piece had achieved a pleasant balance, something that Williams force of nature personality could easily upset. Their debut X-Factor appearance suggested as much, the other members shrinking into the background as he preened and posed. Thus the first voice you hear on Progress is….Robbie Williams. If the band are trying to play down his return they don’t do a very good job. That aside, ‘The Flood’ is what we’ve come to expect from Take That 2.0 – classy, adult pop. ‘S.O.S.’ is more of the same, a great high tempo number only let down by a truly, truly awful eco-inspired lyric.
After that, Progress gets a bit strange. With an electro backing and odd lyrics about cannibals, ‘Wait’ could easily be a track from one of Williams’ more obtuse solo albums, except it’s a pretty decent song. The theme continues, replacing the grown-up Westlife sounds of before with an altogether more adventurous pallet. Throughout they risk falling flat on their collective faces, five middle-aged men trying to compete with the young bucks, but somehow they pull it off – aided no doubt by a set of melodies that lodge themselves in your consciousness.
The results are often baffling but good fun once you get your head round them. ‘Kidz’ is a glam electro stomp, ‘Pretty Things’ a much better Robbie/Gary duet than that awful single and ‘Underground Machine’ is unlike anything they’ve ever done before. Only ‘What Do You Want From Me’ is an utter disaster, not for the music but for the sound of Mark Owen hollering a naff apology to Mrs Owen (“I still wanna have sex with YOUUUUU…..”) – even Robbie at his most afford would have thought twice about that one. That aside, it says a lot for the aptly titled Progress that, when they put the genie back in the bottle and go back to their original template for closing track ‘Eight Words’, it all sounds deathly dull compared to what has come before, even if it does sample ‘Vienna’. Attribute it to growing confidence, a need to keep up to date or even the return of one ex-boy band dancer, but Take That have just rewritten their own rulebook in spectacular fashion.