This article was first published on Louder Than War on 10 June 2013.

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Mark Owen – The Art of Doing Nothing (Polydor Records)
CD / DL / Deluxe versions
Available now

7/10

As part of Take That Mark Owen has enjoyed pop success aplenty but how will his fourth solo album, The Art of Doing Nothing, fare? Sarah Lay takes a listen.

He was beaten to the Christmas number one spot by Mr Blobby, he’s been a Celebrity Big Brother winner, swooned over by girls in their thousands – if you’re looking for reasons to write Mark Owen off as nothing more than one fifth of a manufactured boy band he’s given you plenty to choose from.

The Art of Doing Nothing is his fourth solo album – the first three low-key releases came in Take That’s fallow period between splitting in ’96 and reforming in ’05 – and is a genuinely likeable collection of tunes. It pushes no boundaries, breaks no moulds, but makes best use of synths and production to put this on the indie, if not alternative, side of pop.

Sharing a producer with the likes of Alt-J (Charlie Russell), featuring a collaboration with Ren Harvieu (S.A.D) and an appearance of London-rapper Jake Emlyn (Heaven’s Falling), the album seems to indulge a genunine passion for music-making and lo-fi recording while making the most of top notch mixing and production values.

As the title suggests the album is inspired by the thought of not making an album, of being on a break (Take That are on hiatus following 2011′s Progress album), of doing nothing, and this feeling pervades the album.

Spacious synths, shimmering production, and beats that roll languidly while remaining tight. Owen’s voice – familiar to most as the lead single on Take That hits Babe and Shine (that’s the one on the Morrisons’ advert) – is mainly nasel Oldham whine. It’s not awful, but is perhaps acquired, certainly authentic and recognisable. However, on this album it seems toned down, or refined; an unquestionably Owen vocal given a spit and polish buff up.

Set this against the ambient and shadowy synth backing that runs through most tracks and you have a collection that easily runs with the indietronica pack – moments of pared back Vampire Weekend, a little lighter The XX, and a de-jangled Two Door Cinema Club.

This mixture of pop and electronica is shown perfectly on Ghosts – one of the tracks on the deluxe edition; a mature edge to the vocal, melancholy and hope in the lyric backed by marching strings and echoing rhythm.

 

 

 

Lead single Stars is a great example of the diffused electronica, muted piano-led indie in the spirit of downbeat Foals or the chime-and-drum of Florence + The Machine. Unlikely to be what most would expect from Owen as a solo artist and certainly not to be dismissed as pop-puppet indulgence.

That said I don’t doubt there’ll be unashamed musical snobbery that refuse Mark Owen on the grounds of where he started out but this is an understated and pretty album. Certainly, it stays on safe ground and it’s easy to hear why it’s fared well with the Radio Two listenership but I suspect he’s only one well-timed remix away from an underground hit with a whole other audience.

It lacks any of the stand-out single pop-punch moments of earlier albums but rather is a grown-up, slow-burn to satisfaction. Sliding more toward contentment than euphoria this is an album that forgoes the grand gesture in exchange for homespun happiness through playful yet melody.

All words by Sarah Lay.