This article was first published on Louder Than War on 23 November 2013.

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Gary Barlow – Since I Saw You Last (Polydor Records)
CD / DL
Released 25 November 2013

5/10

For better or worse Gary Barlow is setting the stage for his legacy to be thought of as one of the great songwriters and his latest solo album hears him pay homage to those that have gone before him – Lennon, Elton and, er, David Cassidy.

Sarah Lay gives us the lowdown on Barlow’s latest soft pop offering.

Gary Barlow has been on a journey. The sort of metaphorical journey that so many of the hopefuls auditioning before him on Cowell’s conveyor belt of disposable pop, X Factor, are said to go on.

Gary’s journey goes from chain mail cod pieces and Peroxide quiffs to record-breaking runs of consecutive number one singles, Ivor Novello awards by the armful, awkwardly swaying as the eye-candy in the band synchronise their dance moves and make a thousand impressionable teen-hearts swoon.

It goes to the down-swing; the inevitable implosion of that band and rather than ascending above to fulfill the prophecy as the chosen one finding utter rejection from the industry and years in the wilderness.

His path twists again and see the band get back together and enjoy even more fame the second time round. Top that off with becoming a TV stalwart and an OBE, flexing your swan feathers in early middle age and beginning to wonder if the songwriting Midas touch may work as a solo effort this time.

Yes, it’s been quite a journey. And, to use another X Factor platitude, solo success clearly means the world to Barlow. He captures this on the album’s title track and relives the rejection, rightfully glories in the comeback, “Today I took back what was stolen, I gave new life to what was frozen, one man talking, a dead man walking, a thousand faces watch me falling.”

He goes to let us know he’s, “made his peace with what may happen, accepted I won’t be in fashion, all you gave I got it, you gave I got it, I got it all back.” Ironically, this humblebrag is very du jour and recognises that Barlow is somewhat of an easy target for many. Manufactured pop – whether the sort he judges now on Saturday night telly, or the sort he’s part of with Take That – is open season for many.

This song will do it for many a Thatter, in sound and sentiment it is the soaring call to stand together and rebound the sneers from those who despise the shimmer of pop. It should have been the album opener, to make fans rally and provide some context to why much of the rest of the album is so safe it keeps vaulting the border into the Land of Meh. Those years of backlash clearly still sting…

However, it’s not with Since I Saw You Last,x but with Requiem that we open. Groaning under the weight of Beatlesesque strings and lyrics seemingly imagining the grieving which will occur after Barlow’s own death. It pinballs between pragmatic, surreal and indulgent but fails to slam the jackpot of poignancy. Even if taken less literally and as an analogy for the ebb and flow of fame, it falls short.

The most striking thing is the strings though. Recorded at Abbey Road, like the rest of the strings on the album, it’s hardly surprising they evoke the feel of the Fab Four. But as the chorus kicks in it is less mop tops and the birth of modern pop culture, and more Macca in soft focus waving his Thumbs Aloft.

And this captures the specific issue that Barlow has always faced, and now, as we’ve already heard, openly owns – that he will never be cool. He forever carries the scent of a man whose natural habitat is calling the results of the meat raffle before straightening his keyboard pattern tie and hitting the bossa nova button on a Bontempi organ. His performance style is that of Victoria Wood; all jiggling knee and tongue in cheek nod to camera. No amount of styling seems to soften this trait.

Single Let Me Go sweeps in next, an uptempo number that is in no-way unpleasant as a pop song, just fairly…unremarkable. It’s got pacey percussion, key changes, soaring harmonies just a smidge of Young at Heart about it so there is no reason why this shouldn’t be an all-ages runaway pop hit. But, perhaps, in teetering on the edge of ubiquity it shows only that music is a natural magic and not one that can be conjured through careful construction of component parts.

Even the addition of Elton John on duet Face to Face, doesn’t lift this album above average. Another song that isn’t bad but neither is it striking in any way. It harks back to John’s ’70s disco harmonies, teams with timid tripping military beats, and layers on a lyrics of resolve, but it carries the curse of The Silence – as soon as it’s over you forget its very existence.

Now we’re heading sleepily toward the middle of the album and on God we get David Cassidy’s Daydreamer churned with the  lyrical sentiment of Joan Osbourne’s One of Us. And you know what? After you get past the thoroughbred weirdness of that combination, this actually works as a song. It’s the sort that can pleasantly be hummed while doing the washing up as it embraces its destiny as backing music to mundane thoughts.

 

 

 

As the album heads toward the close we get This House – a song which seems to exist purely to reinforce the well-known fact that rich people’s contentment and comfort does not make great subject matter for the kick-back of rock n roll. This is the sort of thing Barlow should make effort to stay away from.

All the contrition of that track is blown away by the pared back, brutal honesty of Dying Inside. Where opener Requiem makes light of loss, Dying Inside is an intimate glimpse of a soul speared by shards of grief. The crackling falsetto seeks no pity but it would be a cold-heart that failed to empathise, as the scorch of the limelight on the open wounds of grief is so simply, heart-breakingly explained.

While no one would wish this sort of grief, this unending burden of sadness on another, in musical terms it shows Barlow at his absolute best. When he is brave enough to let the walls down the social-club-showman is banished and the authenticity doubters say can’t be found in manufactured pop or its performers is here. Without dueting or mimicking he stands, momentarily, shoulder to shoulder with a different breed of songwriting legend – those that gently, piercingly, present a raw picture of the human condition. This is songwriting without the show, your Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, but an exposed position Barlow can’t hold for long and it’s a shame the veneer returns as the album continues.

Recognition of big time songwriters who have gone before runs through this album and it’s hard to believe that Gary Barlow aims for anything less than the same sort of recognition as his own legacy.

An ambition that is no bad thing in itself and achievable for one who has had a hand in some of the best pop ballads of the last twenty years. Disappointing then, that there is so little of that to get your ears around on Since I Saw You Last and what there is makes you work hard to find it.

At best these are cautious songs from a man who has felt the sting of public and critical backlash before, at worst it’s a mainly complacent collection that, while it’s unlikely to hold Barlow back long term, won’t do much to accelerate him to the next stage of his journey toward songwriting immortality.

All words by Sarah Lay.