On November 24th 2008, a year after the UK release of Beautiful World, Take That released the single Greatest Day.
The twelve months preceding this single’s release had seen them ask questions of themselves and their support, questions that were answered emphatically by Beautiful World. Did Take That still have what it takes? Yes, indeed they did, and the proof was on that album. Was there still a space for Take That in the music world? Yes, indeed there was. Beautiful World was a big bold success and songs like Patience and Shine were the dot on the exclamation point.
Greatest Day is the type of single a band releases when they know they have an album coming to equal that quality. Greatest Day showed everyone that the quality was not about to dip, although by this point no-one seriously thought that it would.
There is often talk of a difficult second album so we should perhaps spare a thought for Take That, the refreshed boy to man band, because they were essentially facing their second second album. It all goes to make the 2008 album an intriguing animal. With 2006’s Beautiful World they were tentatively starting the climb, The Circus was Take That standing at the summit with their arms aloft, lords of all they survey.
The album opens with The Garden; a sunrise in musical form. The imagery of the garden, a stranger speaking on a hill, and soldiers approaching, are almost biblical. As a side note the song starts with a reference to fishermen and water. The last song on the first edition of Beautiful World, Wooden Boat, was also about fishing and water, not to labour the water theme but this a well they like to go to. Lyrically it seems to be about stopping to smell the roses, appreciating your life while it is happening and finding beauty in the ordinary everyday things around us.
Everyone gets a vocal moment here too, Mark’s verse draws us in because Mark’s delivery is always intriguing, Jason’s lines are delicate and Howard’s “Everyone! Everyone!” with the military drums set the whole thing off. The Garden is a brilliant opener.
Greatest Day is track two, perfectly sequenced after a song that has told us to open our minds and start living. This was the first single released and is sonically from the same family as Patience and Rule The World. At the Take That songbook reunion, those two are standing next to Greatest Day in the photos. Gary’s vocal is strong, the backing vocals are epic and the piano makes it feel like this whole thing is barely being held back, and eventually it’s going to musically burst out and fly, which it does. Lyrically again this is another song about taking the moment, “the future is ours to find, can you see it?”, and as with The Garden there is a reminder that our time here is limited. “We all fall in the end” and “before it all ends, before we run out of time” are sober thoughts in the middle of two triumphant tracks.
Even the stoniest of souls cannot help but be swept up with the strings and “stay close to me, hold on” as the song fades into the glorious distance. The returned Take That might never better the one two punch of The Garden and Greatest Day.
Mercifully, Hello is next, mercifully only because it would be asking a lot of listeners emotions to rise and rise, and rise had Said It All been track number three. Hello gives us a bit of a breather and a comedown, but that is not to suggest it is skippable. The song shows that Take That and returning producer John Shanks knows exactly how to pace this journey. Hello bounces along, is probably about being in love and is another slice of Beatlesy ELO fun, probably with half an eye on the stage show to follow.
“The more we fall the harder we must climb“
Eventually we are ready for Said It All. From the song’s first seconds this grabs us by the collar and takes us along. The piano adds instant pace and tension, like the song is almost chasing itself and then it breaks into the wide open space of the chorus, it slows momentarily for Mark’s “all of the miles” and then it takes off again. Take That can do this to us almost effortlessly and arguably they already had our heartstrings plucked in this fashion with Greatest Day but what stops this being that song’s redheaded stepchild is the lyrics; they are arguably to be about Robbie.
Great song lyrics are of course open to many interpretations, the best songs have the ability to prize emotions from each individual listener regardless of what actually inspired the songs in the first place. Said It All could be about anyone’s argument; it sings of the resignation we have all felt when there is literally nothing else to say. On another level however, it does seem to tilt in Robbie’s direction and possibly runs through the emotions of their time as a five piece, leading to his departure.
Take That songs are like a box of chocolates, there is a surface layer for us to enjoy and a second, deeper layer to appreciate when we want to dive into it.
The Circus is in that category. On the surface the character is singing a song of regret to or about someone, but the clown references and the circus show imagery on top of what we have already heard from this band arguably lead us to Robbie once again. The band reach out beautifully on Shine on the comeback album, possibly others on that record too but The Circus alongside Said It All is one of the more direct moments to date. The clown theme is the basis for the Said It All video, so there’s a definitely a thread, however, The Circus does in fact seem to be more mea culpa, it is not big leap to suggest that the song is an apology from Gary Barlow.
The Circus strikes a sombre note, after all the strings and polished pop pomposity this one is a single voice, and it is as minimal musically as we are likely to get on a Take That album. Once again we don’t need the backstory to appreciate the beauty of the song but if we are aware of Robbie’s feelings about being chewed up by the boyband machine, and we are aware of Robbie’s feelings towards Gary as a key figure within that, then we have a deeper appreciation of the words we hear Gary sing.
Take That was the circus, and the boys were the clowns, up on the stage for everyone’s enjoyment. This of course was costing them all something personally. Some band members perhaps paid more than others, but no-one left that stage without bruises.
This confession is very self-aware of Take That’s typical approach, the narrator knows he has got to get his message heard “before the music takes you all away” which it often does.
“Now you can applaud my best mistake, ‘I love you’ was too many words to say”.
Coming as this does at the halfway point of an album, and being the title track, The Circus feels like a key moment for the Take That family. It goes further than checking in on a friend, it feels like something said from one person to another that absolutely needed to be said; I am sorry, I love you.
Nothing to say that matters? Once The Circus is finished, there is some truth to the idea that Take That have finally said it all.
On How Did It Come To This, Jason Orange is appealing to a “girl in Camden Town” who is a little out of reach and is struggling with the glare of the spotlight. A UK tabloid confirmed that the song is about Amy Winehouse, this was also reported by the New Musical Express (20th November 2008) weeks before the album’s release.
Take That have been through ‘all the noise’ and plastered on all the smiles. They have seen all the lights and felt alone in a room full of people, so they and in particular Jason, are best placed to use their position as elder statesmen in the music industry to help someone who was losing their way. While it was not released as a single, it was performed on the tour that followed, and featured in the band’s Abbey Road session.
Up All Night is another well placed track, similar to Hello in that it is another sung by Mark, and it nicely lightens up the mood following the emotional middle from Said It All to How Did It Come To This. It is bouncy, it has the right amount of oompah, great background vocals, and it cleanses your palette. It is easy to see why this and its bigger, brassier brother Shine got picked up for supermarket adverts on UK television.
What Is Love is a pleasant surprise. It is a album track version of that feeling you get from the Saturday night TV talent show, when you have zero expectations of the person that just walked through the door and they proceed to belt out a note perfect Nesssun Dorma. The initiated knew that Howard had this in his locker and aside from the cradle of background vocals It’s absolutely right that no one else shares the lead, Howard nails it. If anything, there is even more melancholy on the Abbey Road version.
In Session At Abbey Road was released on 30th November 2009, almost exactly a year after the release of Greatest Day. It features songs from The Circus, alongside Beautiful World tracks which were already greatest hits, all performed live and acoustic in Abbey Road. The stripped-down presentations allow the listener to the embrace the lyrics and immerse themselves in the delivery without the syrup of the studio versions.
The boys are vulnerable in this setting; there’s nothing to distract and not really any production tricks to fall back on but they handle it beautifully. Good songs can be performed in any setting but certain ones in Take That’s catalogue really benefit from the intimacy, all the key emotions in the studio versions are heightened here. Gary Barlow’s low singing on Greatest Day feels wonderfully velvety, and The Circus gets an almost late-night Vegas lounge treatment which fits like a glove. There are nuances in Mark’s voice that really thrive in this collection and background vocals are unequalled, they are more in focus on songs like the Abbey Road version of How Did It Come To This and Julie. Listeners will leave with a greater appreciation for them.
Back in The Circus tent we are on the home stretch of the album and it is here we come to a minor bump in the road.
You is a nice enough song but it feels like Gary is painting by numbers. It has all the signature sounds the newer Take That have made theirs but there’s nothing really breath-taking about it.
The final two songs on the album cement this collectionas Take That’s strongest effort of their new era to this point.
Hold Up A Light chimes like advice to the elusive ex bandmate, “you can dance if you like, you can sing every line, in every song no you don’t have to steal the show it was your show all along’ sounds like a friendly negotiation. Perhaps Robbie needed to be told that he could take the stage and own it, and this is just a friendly wave from a proud friend watching in the audience. It is notable that the song is sung from the point of view of someone watching and not joining in, which makes it like Shine. Mark is no stranger to singing words of encouragement to Robbie.
Listeners might come away from Hold Up A Light with a sense that both Robbie and Take That can exist in the music universe going forward; fans would always hope for more of course but here is a band back at top of the mountain and happily equal to Robbie Williams. That is something that seemed scarcely possible a few short years ago.
The end of the final track Here is the brilliant. Take That have flirted with ELO and the Beatles before to great success and the outro to this song is not so much flirting as planting a big Jeff Lynne Sgt Peppery kiss on the lips.
It could be argued that The Circus is a concept album; circuses, clowns, performers intertwined with public personas, private troubles, and so much honesty that at times it feels like we are hearing pages of diaries set to music. Yes, on this album Take That deliver us pop music, but it has soul and just enough syrup to make it taste sweet.
Pop bands aren’t meant to withstand the drama that Take That have coped with. In pop world terms they are practically Fleetwood Mac. They had a lot of baggage to unpack, and we hear them start to on this album.
If Robbie had any fears about his value in the band and the love to him from all of those within it then surely by the end of The Circus those fears were gone.
It feels like the whole collection is a dialogue between them all.
“All things you see end up where they should be.”
Based on and referencing the Take That album The Circus (Polydor, 2008), The Circus Live and Abbey Road Session (Polydor, 2009)
Clown picture taken from The Circus tour, © Sarah at tobygoesbananas.co.uk. Used by kind permission.
Words © 2020 Simon Andrew Moult / Moultymedia. Artwork, lyrics and quotes used under fair use for illustration, discussion, criticism and review.