Aaron Beam is the lead vocalist and bassist for Portland, Oregon hard rock group Red Fang. He has also played with Helms Alee and Federation X in addition to writing for the Portland Mercury and working on the film Coraline. When not relentlessly touring the world or making viral music videos, he enjoys cooking, telling bad jokes, and spending time with his family. Aaron used to love beer but no longer drinks it due to a recurring yeast infection on his anus.
There is an epidemic of chic new restaurants in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. The decors are fancy enough to be impressive without being intimidating, but the menus are usually predictable, with just a small hint of adventure injected, not through novel combinations or creative techniques, but rather by the use of unfamiliar words to describe familiar ingredients. These places want you to think they are something special, but at heart they’re not much more than yuppie-friendly Bennigan’s. Their survival depends on comfort, predictability and inoffensiveness.
I walked into the restaurant that is the new Take That album with no preconceptions. I wanted to listen to the album a few times and judge it as a stand-alone piece before I did more research, since that is nearly always the way I discover new music in the real world.
Take That were originally formed in 1989 as sort of a UK equivalent to the then hugely popular New Kids on the Block. Part of their creation story is that there were four of them (Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Jason Orange and Mark Owen), but they were lacking the right chemistry to make them stars. Enter Robbie Williams, then 16 years old but already a “bad boy.” According to oft-repeated lore, it was his charisma that cemented their place as a chart-topping force. He left the group in 1995 to pursue a solo career, hung around with Oasis and made a valiant but unsuccessful effort to crack America.
Take That took a break after Williams left but picked it back up in the aughts with their 2006 album Beautiful World, and Williams rejoined them for 2010’s Progress, then left again fairly recently, as did Orange. The group remains massively popular in the UK, and critics there tend to give them a certain amount of respect for writing their own material and working with hip producers like Madonna collaborator Stuart Price. But all that said, the group’s latest album III is, to use the British terminology, utter shite.
Now you might be thinking, “This metalhead doesn’t know shit about pop music and can’t possibly be qualified to write about it.” Well, here is a little secret: For nearly everyone I know who plays in a metal band, metal is just one subset of the music that interests and inspires us. I’ve got Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna and many other pop artists in my iTunes library. A week before we left for our current tour with Opeth and In Flames, two of my bandmates went to see Justin Timberlake in concert. I would have gone in a heartbeat but I didn’t have $110 to shell out for a ticket.
Here’s another secret: the biggest, most legendary metal bands are all laden with pop hooks. Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Metallica all write catchy songs. I’d argue that that’s what makes them so hugely popular. I’d also argue that Slayer, despite being the most brutal of the more well-known metal bands, is second only to Black Sabbath in the number of melodic hooks they write. They just all happen to be guitar riffs. The point is, I like catchy pop songs.
And therein lies the biggest disappointment I have with this album. Even after repeated listens, not only is there not one single hook stuck in my head, but I can hardly recall anything about any part of III at all. To be fair, “pop” is short for “popular,” and does not necessarily, in theory, denote any particular musical style. And this record is selling like whatever they call hotcakes in the UK, so labeling it a “popular” record is quite fair.
Regarding the actual music, many analogies come to mind. The chain restaurant one is obvious. The record also strikes me as sort of a degraded photocopy. While the production quality is sufficiently high and the singing impeccable (Owen in particular has an impressively dexterous voice, most clearly demonstrated on “Into the Wild”), the songs themselves almost all have this extremely irritating quality of being just far enough removed from whatever music inspired them to put the source material just out of reach of identification. It’s like a third- or fourth-generation photocopy of a crumpled original. You can kind of make out the outlines of what the original looked like, but you just can’t quite figure out what it was.
So the question is, are they drawing inspiration from contemporary artists to try to tap into what is popular today? Or are they a deteriorated carbon copy of themselves? I feel like I can hear all kinds of ’90s and even ’80s pop references, from Cyndi Lauper to Nu Shooz to the Backstreet Boys. But even if I listen to their old albums today and try to draw parallels, I don’t think it’s the same as having lived with them when they were contemporary and then hearing III in that context. Only true fans will be able to decipher whether this is recycled Take That or something else. But based on their reported album sales, their true fans don’t give a flying turd. And why should they? In any case, because I only have pop music by other artists as a reference, I have a pretty vivid imaginary scenario in my mind for how this record was made.
I picture someone in an office somewhere making a mixtape of successful songs from Disney movies, modern night-time soap operas, early-’90s pop misses, a Celine Dion b-side and some Broadway musical numbers, then stuffing a note in it, saying, “OK, fellas, here’s your source material. Please rework these songs just enough to evoke their spirit, but make sure you alter them sufficiently that we can’t be sued by the copyright holders.” The album cover even reflects this idea. It depicts three figures (presumably the remaining members) with digitally degraded shadows extending upwards away from their feet.
There’s that blurry facsimile-of-a-facsimile/bland chain-restaurant quality to this record, and yet it’s clearly the product of some extremely competent songwriters and singers. In fact, there are moments here that are very close to being almost good. But those nearly good spots are far outweighed by embarrassing failures. The repetitive, inane lyrics of “If You Want It” are a prime example: “If you want it/you can have it/you can have it/if you want it/if you want it/come and get it/come and get it/if you want it.” These lyrics are sung with an impassioned conviction that makes my stomach turn. Because what I hear is a singer, in this case Barlow, who has been so thoroughly beaten down by his producer into creating this pablum that he is choking down his own vomit while forcing these words out of his mouth. The alternative is equally sickening, which is that he is really identifying with and feeling these boneheaded lyrics and their ridiculous melody, which sounds like someone trying to do a soccer chant through a rain-soaked brown paper bag. That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s just limp and wet and gross and sad.
But let’s focus for a moment on the less embarrassing moments on the album. I already talked about the vocal dexterity displayed on “Into the Wild.” The following track, “Flaws,” is the clear highlight of the record. It features lyrics, again sung by Barlow, that come the closest to expressing something resembling vulnerable human emotion. “I have so many, so many flaws/If you take me, you take me, they’re yours/If you see tomorrow/I’ll give you it all/Take me, take me, I’m yours… Oh, I wanna be a better man than I am/Oh, I wanna be the one who says he understands.” But then it culminates in a “whoa-oh-oh-oh” refrain that I know is almost directly lifted from some other song, but again I can’t place it, which is frustrating. It makes me think of The Lion King. When I’m trying to get emotionally involved in some human fragility, being interrupted by a cartoon is a bit jarring.
Furthermore, this brief moment of vulnerability is immediately obliterated by the next track, “Get Ready for It,” which features the most embarrassing, David Hasselhoffian moment of the entire album. With its opening vocal blast of “get ready for it,” sung by Barlow in a half-hearted growl, which then transitions into a soaring but emasculated “ahh-ahh-ahh,” this track sounds like it could be the theme music to a Viagra commercial. Get ready for it, wife! Here comes my boner! We are gonna make chemical love tonight and it is going to feel like the real thing, but it will be utterly devoid of emotion. Are you ready? I think I am! Am I? Ahh… fuck my life.
But let’s go back to trying to focus on the positives. “Amazing” opens with an acoustic verse that is unmistakably and undeniably drawn from Paul McCartney. The band kicks in and it seamlessly shifts to a lush, George Harrison-style melody and arrangement. This song, in its effortless, sophisticated and adept aping of those Beatle songwriters’ styles, highlights how technically proficient this band is. Which is ultimately what makes III so frustrating: These guys obviously have heaps of talent for both songwriting and performance if they can make a song that good, yet overall the album is flat and lackluster. This record sounds like failed potential. The ingredients were all there but perhaps there was more talent than inspiration? I don’t really know. What I do know is that I never want to eat at this restaurant again.