Review Summary: Nice men with cold hearts?
Take That are the most successful UK band since The Beatles. Yeah, you read that right. Take That are the most succesful UK band since The Beatles. Which begs the question, why? I mean, none of these guys apart from Gary Barlow are bona fide musicians; and their vocal talents are hardly outstanding. They’re just a boy band propagated to fit a market demographic: Robbie for girls who like cheeky men, Mark for those who prefer their men sweet, Gary for those who go for chubby and the other two (nobody can remember their names) to appeal to girls who are just plain awkward. Which is fine for a boy band. But they’ve done that; they’ve had their dismal solo careers; made their inevitable reality tv appearances. Surely that is the end of the story. But no, they re-launch ten years after their acrimonious breakup, as a “man band” and even more strangely meet with massive success.
This third comeback album sees them morph from the Fab Four to the Famous Five, with the return of tabloid whore Robbie Williams ("my drugs hell", "my sex addict hell", "my gay slur hell", "my eating disorder hell", "my hell hell", etc); which epitomises the essential problem with Take That: that reek of opportunism. It may state on the back sleeve “all songs written by Take That”, but I’ll wager that isn’t reflected in the royalty split in the small print of the publishing contract. This is basically Gary Barlow's baby and he is actually a great songwriter. But he is nothing if not commercially astute to the point of cynicism, manipulating a Take That brand to sell songs that would be shunned if part of his solo career. The return of Robbie exemplifies this business candour, carried out in the full knowledge that the resulting publicity would guarantee massive sales both for this release and for their impending stadium tour.
Of course, all those original pre-pubescent girls, who had pinned posters of their heartthrobs on bedroom walls, are now all grown up with their own disposable income, mothers themselves and still feeling the maternal urge for this essentially nice band. But the direction that producer Stuart Price (Madonna, Scissor Sisters, The Killers) has chosen for this record may see some alienation set in. Like a host of contemporary bands (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MIA, Surfjan Stevens) that have sought to re-energise their sound, Take That have gone all electro synth crazy to reflect a vision of the future as some kind of robotic dystopia. They sugar the pill slightly by topping and tailing the album with typical Take That fare, starting with the current single The Flood
with its semi-anthemic strings and finishing with doubtless future single and piano-led ballad Eight Letters
. The rest is all a juddering sprawl of chunky synthesisers, martial drum beats with the bass mix low, a kind of relentless up-tempo slice of eurovision.
The songs themselves without exception are chock full of melodies and bouncing choruses; and not lumbered with the occasional filler of sub Beatles dirges like the previous two albums. The flaw perhaps lies in the respective contributions of Robbie and Mark Owen. Robbie is still obsessed about being a rock star (“I’m just a piece of your pie chart, you’re in a room with a rock star, oh what a beast, what a man”), but we’ve heard all that before; whilst Mark wants to clear up certain aspects of his reported marital indiscretions (“it’s been a difficult year, but I still want to have sex with you”), which we haven’t heard before and would probably prefer not to hear again. The rest of the lyrics reflect the fact that the band and their audience have all grown up and can now converse about grown up things. So grown up, in fact, that there lurks a suspicion of some kind of half baked concept album going on. About the state of the world. And the environment. And everything. This doesn’t detract from any specific song heard in isolation, especially when they are delivered as here with Bee Gee falsettos and Bowie-esque growls wrapped in electronic mayhem. But over the course of a whole album, the gears begin to grind slightly and a lack of empathy develops. I mean, these songs are good enough. But I’m not sure I can really care about them too much.