In what may be the strangest opening salvo ever in a mainstream comeback, Gary Barlow chooses to lead off his first album in over 14 years with a song about death.
Co-written by Robbie Williams, “Requiem” is effectively a wake, a dead spirit hearing eulogies from friends. “For the folks I leave behind/ I’m in heaven, imagine my surprise!”. It’s the kind of wry sentiment you’d associate more with Robbie, but the arrangement is undeniably Barlow at his most McCartneyesque, slipping smoothly from the solemn opening to a chipper, thumbs-aloft celebration of a “requiem with all my friends”.
It’s hard not to view the track as Barlow’s coded response to his years out in the cold, when his career was, to all intents and purposes, dead. That deep hurt is more overtly present in the title track, a reflection on the cruel vicissitudes of showbiz which finds him exulting, “Today I took back what was stolen, and gave new life to what was frozen”.
Set to the wholesome strum of 12-string guitar, it’s an example of the album’s acoustic side, with Barlow indulging his folkier leanings through bouts of rousing Mumfordry, like the single “Let Me Go” and the rather patronising tribute to ordinary people, “Small Town Girls”, and “This House”, where plunking banjo imparts a tone of folksy sincerity to the celebration of family values.
But Barlow’s generally at his best in more mainstream territory; he’s essentially a classic pop singer-songwriter in the stalwart British style of McCartney and Elton John, the latter duetting here on the romping “Face to Face”.
Elton’s fingerprints, in terms of influence, are also all over the piano progressions of “6th Avenue”, a warm rumination on separation and reunion featuring what is simultaneously the album’s most awkward and intriguing conceit, “Has time taken leave of our senses, or sense taken leave of our time?”.
Elsewhere, rippling piano and harp set against strings support his musings about evangelism in “God”, while “Jump” encourages the timid to “throw caution to the wind” and try something new. Which, despite the routine shuffling of romantic cliches in a few other songs, is something Barlow himself has tried to do here.