Take That released their first album as a three-piece this morning. Our official Barlow & Co correspondent was on hand to give his first impressions
It’s been a rocky 12 months for the enduring mid-40s man-band Take That. Not only have they lost two members – part-time recruit Robbie Williams decided not to return after touring 2010’s excellent Progress album and then, in September, Jason Orange left because he couldn’t commit to another album and tour cycle – but the remaining three members were also embroiled in a tax avoidance controversy. There was also Barlow’s two-year stint on The X Factor to try and overcome, as well as Mark Owen’s recent solo album. However, dodgy accountancy, fun-absorbing talent judging and the loss of personnel doesn’t appear to have dampened people’s appetites for Take That – III is the most preordered album in Amazon UK’s history – and for their part they’ve created a record that continues to experiment with the euphoric pop formula. Featuring production from the likes of gold-plated pop maestro Greg Kurstin, Progress collaborator Stuart Price and ballad favourite John Shanks, III feels like a compendium of the albums they’ve made since reforming in 2006, flitting as it does between electro-tinged paranoia, arena-sized singalongs and midlife crisis-tinged confessionals. III is, as Gary Barlow said recently, most definitely not a retirement record.
Produced by Kurstin, the first single and current UK No 1 These Days is so good it manages to overcome Gary Barlow’s weird American accent, which crops up in the first verse. Brilliantly cheesy and shamelessly aiming for the heart of the disco revival, it’s the perfect example of pop absorbing a trend that already feels like it’s on the way out. Sure to become a wedding disco staple – not least so people can replicate the dad dancing displayed on their recent X Factor performance – it’s a euphoric opener that seems to encapsulate the album’s themes of grabbing life by the lapels and giving it a good shake.
Let In the Sun
A likely future single, Let In the Sun – produced by Stuart Price – has been billed as Take That’s attempt at an Avicii moment. Mark Owen even described it somewhat depressingly as “the song your dad would write if he was trying to be down with the kids”. Thankfully it’s not full-on EDM, but instead feels like Gary Barlow’s version of a night out – more soft shoe shuffle than tops-off-on-a-bar necking as much water as possible. Opening with a housey piano riff and twinkling synths, it initially feels quite Coldplay at the discotheque, before ramping up to a chorus that never quite kicks as hard as it should. Lyrically it’s euphoria with a capital E, Barlow crooning “Open up, everyone’s waiting … open up your windows and let in the sun” as Edge-style guitars glide epically by. It goes without saying it’s incredibly catchy.
If You Want It
Shared online last week, If You Want It is another Kurstin collaboration and the most Take That song on the album so far. In fact the chorus, complete with a half-second drop before it properly kicks in, could have come from one of their mid-90s albums. Once again the lyrics seem to be about grabbing the chance for happiness – “it’s never going to happen if you’re waiting for it” – while there’s talk of peeling off layers and rebirth. Weirdly the piano riff is almost identical to the Band Aid 20 version of Do They Know It’s Christmas?, but I assume that was accidental.
Mark Owen may have always been the band heartthrob, but beneath that cherubic outer layer seems to live a fairly tortured soul. Most of Owen’s contributions to Progress saw either him picking over his relationships – as on the uncomfortably honest What Do You Want From Me, written for his wife in the wake of his affair – or highlighting his heightened sense of paranoia (SOS, Kidz). On Lovelife he ponders “Do you really love life?” in a singing voice that sounds like Droopy had he been born in Oldham. At one point he even sings the words “sad face”, seemingly unaware of his status as the band’s very own sad clown. So while lyrically it’s all fairly downbeat, musically Price offers up a sort of dance-pop hoedown full of “oh oh oh” moments and another arena-ready chorus. As with most of the songs on the first half of III, it feels like a solo song for whoever gets the lead vocal, with Owen even handling most of the chorus alone.
Barlow returns on Portrait, a stately ballad for its first third in which “strong” is rhymed with “long” and then “gone”. A minute in, however, the whole thing morphs into a sort of barbershop singalong of “bah bah bahs” with Barlow utilising a lovely delicate falsetto on the middle eight. Produced again by Stuart Price, there are some interesting production touches throughout, especially the robot chorus that mirrors Barlow’s vocal line and the flashes of synth squiggles that rise and fall in the song’s final third.
Higher than Higher
Built around a mesh of broken-up voices and glitchy electronics, Higher than Higher recalls the prettier moments on Progress. As ever the production is spacious and precise, with each different element – the marching band beat, the acoustic strums, the echoey synths – all meticulously layered. Again the lyrics seem to deal with searching for happiness, this time with the help of someone special: “If you weren’t here I’d be on the ground.” Lilting and uplifting in a way that avoids pop’s obsession with heavy-handed didacticism, it’s a nice album track.
I Like It
There were moments on Progress where Take That seemed to think they were Muse and that obsession returns on I Like It. Unfortunately all the expanding squelchy synths and fuzz bass are also accompanied by the faint whiff of glam rock. Once again, paranoia prevails, Barlow intoning “I’m looking down, I can see you now,” while there’s talk of hearing voices and a middle eight featuring various treated vocals that sound like menacing robots. The melody for the chorus, which for some reason feels like it takes ages to arrive, mixed with Barlow’s vocal makes the whole thing so jaunty and sprightly that the sense of prevailing danger is sucked out and replaced by the image of Barlow having a dad rant about Facebook privacy.
Give You My Love
The real surprise on the bubbly electronic minimalism of Give You My Love is that Howard Donald gets a lead vocal. Eight songs in! No wonder fourth (sometimes fifth depending on Robbie’s schedule) vocalist Jason didn’t bother this time round. Anyway, it’s another fairly low-key, mid-paced electronic number that really comes alive in the falsetto heavy chorus, Price’s production once again allowing space for the song to breathe. At 2’50” it’s also by far the shortest song here. Poor Howard.
The first two-thirds of III doesn’t really have any standard, Back for Good-style ballads, instead taking the template of 2007’s stadium-sized epic Rule the World and bolting on some electronic atmospherics. Highlight Freeze sees the return of Kurstin, who encases a brilliant Barlow vocal in shimmering piano, big galloping drums and subtle electronic textures. As the music drops away for a lovely pre-chorus, that very Take That knack of letting everything pause for just a second before the chorus erupts is all present and correct. Anthemic and stadium-ready, it seems initially to be about a relationship, but as each member sings a line in the middle eight – something that rarely happens on III – you sense that the sentiment “just freeze so we don’t have to start again” carries more weight given recent band upheavals.
Into The Wild
Gloomy Mark’s back and this time more paranoid and panicked than ever. In fact one of the first words he utters is “uptight”. Once again the music never lets the lyrical subject matter bog down the song, with Mark’s mumblings buffeted by big galloping drums and expansive synths. As ever the chorus is really good, even if Owen’s vocal means that the required sense of euphoria is never quite reached.
A lot of Flaws seems to feature Barlow a little too close to the microphone. I imagine it’s meant to connote real emotion but it mainly just sounds like he needs to stand back a bit. Regardless, Flaws – produced by Shanks – is III’s only real attempt at a proper ballad and sounds like something that could have fit neatly on Barlow’s last solo album. “I have so many flaws, if you take me you take me they’re yours,” he sings with a slight country twang as the song rumbles along politely in the background. It’s nice enough and acts a nice breather from all the doom-laden electronic stuff, even if they can’t resist over-egging the pudding slightly with some bolted on “oh woah oh” bits.
Get Ready For It
Actually the “oh woah ohs” are all over Get Ready For It, a song written for Matthew Vaughn’s film Kingsman: The Secret Service and the likely second single. After opening small with scattergun beats, the whole thing erupts just after Barlow bellows “get ready for it” and unleashes a massive wave of “oh woah ohs”. Like Rule the World after a blockbuster makeover, it relies heavily on its wordless chorus but there’s a really lovely melody shift when Barlow sings “together we can save the world tonight” that becomes one of the song’s best hooks. As with all songs written to be as epic as humanly possible there are some lyrical question marks, not least with “the night is young until it’s over” and the just plain odd, “I’ll hold your hand with good intentions”. Maybe that latter one makes more sense in the context of the film but you get the feeling it doesn’t really matter.
Believe (bonus track)
A pretty Mark Owen mini-epic that recalls second-album Coldplay. There’s a bit where Mark sings the line “It’s been a long day,” which somehow seems to epitomise his role as the tired old man of the band.
Amazing (bonus track)
Basically a Barlow solo ballad that tries a little too hard to mimic the Beatles. Nans will love it.
Do It All For Love (bonus track)
Mark’s back with what starts off as a sadface ballad (“I’ll take the salt and all the weight of your tears”) but then segues into a galloping epic with lots of synth strings and lovely chorus of “while we wait for the dawn to arrive, we do it all for love”.
This article was written by Michael Cragg, for theguardian.com on Monday 1st December 2014 12.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010