Music: Progress by Take That ****
Take That, with a repentant Robbie Williams in tow, have been the feel-good music news story of the year. They shifted 1.2 million tickets for next year's European tour in just 24 hours and this album has done seriously impressive business since going on the shelves in the UK on Monday.
First day sales of 235,000 were the highest of any British album in the UK charts this century -- the sort of figures to make record industry execs long for those heady pre-internet days. It helps, of course, that the band enjoyed huge exposure on X Factor at the weekend and amazon.co.uk are selling the album for the remarkably cheap price of £3.99 until Sunday.
Considering the love that has been showered on the band since reforming in 2006, an adoration bolstered by the return of the prodigal Williams, they could have released any old tosh and it would have gone straight to number one. Instead, what they've done is released the best album of their career, one that also easily trumps their various solo efforts.
Out go the syrupy ballads of yore -- although I will forever defend the pop merits of Back For Good -- and in comes a batch of songs that clearly take Take That out of their comfort zone. It's so different to their norm that they considered changing their name (to The English, quiz fans).
Kidz, for instance, opens with the sound of jackboots marching before dissolving into the sort of skewed electro-glam that Williams tried for size on his much derided Rudebox album. This time, the experiment works a treat -- it's one of several songs that don't sound anything like Take That.
The choice of lead single is telling too. The Flood is likely to have baffled some of their more conservative fans because it actually requires work on the listener's behalf. But it's a far more effective comeback single for Williams and Barlow than Shame was. It's the track that opens the album and hints at the very different direction the band have taken.
In places, they sound like The Killers, elsewhere it's the hi-energy pop of Scissor Sisters. Such similarities are not surprising when you consider that Stuart Price is in the producer's seat. The man credited with Madonna's most recent reinvention and Keane's about-turn, worked with both Brandon Flowers and Scissor Sisters and his sense of fun is all over this album.
There's no doubt that that boyband under the control of (ex-manager) Nigel Martin-Smith wouldn't have attempted anything as daring, but now they are in the very happy position of doing exactly what they want.
Having said all that, this is hardly the most stadium-friendly album in the world, and most of the songs will have to be thoroughly reworked in order to have an impact in Croke Park next summer.
Over the course of 11 songs, this eclectic, surprising album offers the middle finger to those who think manufactured bands are incapable of delivering the goods. Westlife release their 11th (dismal) album today, but they should take a long, hard listen to Progress. It would be highly educational.
Burn it: The Flood; Kidz