By posing in their birthday suits for cover art that imitates the iconic image of evolution from ape to man and then naming the album Progress, the newly reunited Take That would love to have us believe that their sixth studio effort denotes the culmination of their 20-year musical evolution. It's not, but it does find the group making fantastic strides in a new and unexpected direction. In drastically trimming down the humdrum balladry that has won them their scores of swooning teenage groupies, the album certainly indicates the newly reunited quintet are changing shape: Gary Barlow's songwriting leans toward some surprisingly dark bouts of synth-pop, which sound like a collection of postcards from a decaying futuristic dystopia. And while the group's songwriter-in-chief doesn't always seem completely comfortable in this new frontier, Progress's stronger moments emphatically dispel any question marks over his songwriting credibility.
The group rarely plays it safe here, which is both surprising and admirable considering it would have been oh so easy to exploit Robbie Williams's return with a number of tearjerkers. The British media darling hasn't recorded with Take That since his acrimonious departure in 1995, and though Progress doesn't explicitly dwell on this, Williams tends to play a leading role throughout, fronting seven of the album's 10 tracks. Williams sounds as assured and confident as ever whether he's snarling over the sonorous glitches of "Underground Machine" or doing a spot of rebel-rousing atop the belligerent anthem "SOS."
"Pretty Things" is a gorgeous duet between Williams and Barlow, the former assuming falsetto duties while the latter whispers further down the scale. This number in particular highlights the maturity in Barlow's songwriting and the strength of this synth-driven formula, built on chiming blips and bleeps with a warm string arrangement putting the accent mark on an alluring chorus. It's refreshing to hear a Take That record that isn't suffocated with overblown anthems, and Progress begins to settle into a pleasant groove with these comparatively modest numbers.
The epic pageantry of lead single "The Flood" and everything from Mark Owen's desperately slushy "What Do You Want from Me?" onward conspires to derail the album somewhat, with this awkwardly forgettable curtain call pulling in some conventional Take That tunes into a record where they're simply not needed. Of course, making such sweeping changes to their sound will flabbergast some corners of their fanbase, but given the remarkable quality of the results, is there really a need to cushion the blow with these more predictable numbers? At its best, with the apocalyptic stomp of "SOS" and the dreamy tones of "Pretty Things," it's clear Progress is by far the smartest record that Barlow and company have put their name to.