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This is a double-review of the Progress CD and Look Back, Don’t Stare DVD–both by the British group Take That.

First of all, I’m well aware that this is quite a late review. Now, if I may explain myself: No, I’ve not been shipped off to a god-forsaken cave for the past year or so, it’s just that the last half of 2010 and majority of 2011 have been incredibly hectic for me, which is why I’ve purposely delayed the purchase of the album and DVD, and thought it would be appropriate–and in a sense–more meaningful, to give them to myself as a Christmas present. With that said, let’s get on with business:

Look Back, Don’t Stare: A Film About Progress.

This behind-the-scenes film/documentary on the making of their album Progress almost feels a bit as if I’m intruding on their private reunion, but I have so many questions and so little information on them for the past few years or so that I just want to absorb every single second of it.

The choice to record the film/documentary in black-and-white was an apt decision and gave it much gravitas. No fancy effects or bells-and-whistles needed to drive the true message across, after all.

Through this, I got to see not just the smiley, happy-go-lucky lads basking in the fame and limelight, but most important, I got a glimpse of the demons they’ve battled, their insecurities, struggles, and well, mortality.

By far the most interesting moment for me in the film was when Messrs. Williams and Barlow finally stripped down the mystery of their long-standing “feud”, as well as the circumstances that led to their cathartic reconciliation. It was devoid of any hyperbolic drama, but if you’ve followed their complicated relationship over the years, then you’d appreciate the candor and humility of the two as they discuss how that chapter in their lives affected them profoundly.

It answered a lot of lingering and hanging questions and explained curious circumstances.

I shan’t transcribe an elaborate analysis of each part anymore, but each and every bit, no matter how simple or banal they may seem, is just as strong and powerful as the sum of the parts.

You’ll understand how I, along with millions of their fans, have become so emotionally invested in them. Their story has become an inextricable part of their nation–they literally grew up in front of millions of prying (and adoring/criticizing) eyes, had an astronomical rise, imploded and crashed, and then like a phoenix, rose from the ashes and made themselves relevant again.

It’s not just about the music. It’s about honesty, forgiveness, acceptance, movement, renewal.

Farewell, Old Take That.

It has been emotional. But it was sure worth the watch.

.

Progress.

How will it be possible for only 10 tracks to sate my 15-year old longing for a 5-piece Take That?

That was my initial thought when I counted the number of tracks in the album as I stared at the back cover.

Of course I’ve read reviews, heard the singles, seen the music videos–but any audiophile knows that listening to an album as a whole, from start to finish, is an experience completely different from mere piecemeal moments.

“The Flood”, the first track and single, is the quintessential “anthem” of the album, the song that will forever elicit goosebumps from the fans as we associate it with the materialization of the long-awaited, almost miraculous reunion. The battlecry of the new era of Take That, if you will.

However, if much of their past albums have been anchored on the solid, heart-wrenching ballads of their chief songwriter and vocalist Gary Barlow, this time around, the closest we get to a “Back for Good”-esque ballad is “Eight Letters”, a soulful tune that, upon deeper analysis of the lyrics, is not so much about pining for a fair maiden’s affection, but really a modern ode to their bromance. The lack of ballads though does not mean that Barlow has been demoted or outranked–as you go through the tracks, you will clearly hear the evidence that he is still in firm control and the “Captain” of this proverbial ship as the band attempts to sail through uncharted musical territory.

The rest of the tracks are relatively-fast, in-your-face and unapologetically opinionated. While Robbie Williams and Mark Owen get their fair share of the lead vocals, you’ll hardly begrudge them for it as Gary Barlow, Howard Donald and Jason Orange all seamlessly harmonize their vocals with the rest that at times you’ll hardly notice who is dominating the track. In the words of Sir Elton John, “They’ve never sounded better.”

This is not the fresh-faced, googly-eyed, baggy-trouser-wearing Take That of
Nobody Else (circa 1994, their last album as a quintet). They’re the darker, edgier, brasher iterations of themselves who boldly scream about love, loss, sex, and various socio-political issues as opposed to sweetly crooning them, and yet they still come off as men you’d hand your babies to and introduce cheerily to your mom and pop. Every song dares the listener to be displeased with their new musical direction but at the same time, shades of their signature musical style teases and entices relentlessly. Their lyrics are raw and sharp, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, at times coded and see-sawing between jaded arrogance and self-deprecation. The album is akin to a shameless, rowdy romp with an ex-boyfriend you’ve never gotten over with and who’ve somehow managed to get even better and more perfect over the course of time.

Yes, I’m gushing. Deal with it.

The boys are now Men, and I could not be any more proud of them.

And, I was wrong–that 10* tracks may not seem much on paper, but in the end, it’s not about the number of tracks but the amount of blood, sweat and tears that the lads have shed into making them. It’s clear that the process was nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster ride for  them as a band, and it shows. Each and every one of the songs is brilliant, and I’d rather have heard those 10* tracks than the sheer torture of not having them be made at all.

Thank you for your Progress, lads. Please tour Asia soon.

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(*11, counting Flowerbed, the hidden track after Eight Letters)

P.S. There’s still the Progressed EP, which I’ve yet to hunt down.

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