No synthesisers were harmed in the making of Gary Barlow’s fifth solo album, Music Played by Humans. The title is a jest at the expense of modern music making methods by a pop star who (get this, kids!) plays piano, writes his own songs, and can hold a note without the aid of Autotune.
Over a hundred human beings can be heard on tracks featuring an orchestra, big band, choir, and a range of guests including singers Beverly Knight, Michael Bublé and Alisha Dixon, hip-hop pianist Chilly Gonzales, jazz trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf and double bassist Avishai Cohen.
Opening number, Who’s Driving This Thing?, offers a witty paean to the collaborative joy of playing music, delivered in the form of a racy swinger that could leave Sammy Davis Jr breathless. You try singing “just when you panic this thing is not aerodynamic you find you’ve got wings as the strings climb aboard” without getting your tongue in a twist. Co-written with Barlow’s frequent musical theatre collaborator Tim Firth, its syncopated interaction between words and music is a genuinely bravura opening gambit. To Barlow’s credit he maintains that exhilarating – if at times rather exhausting – standard throughout.
The album is described in the press release as “an ode to the sounds of Gary’s childhood”, which implies Barlow was raised in a golden age before rock ‘n’ roll, despite being a 49-year-old born in the Seventies who came to fame as leader of a heavily manufactured dance-pop outfit. Take That remains the biggest-selling British boy band of all time, although Barlow’s sporadic solo career has been unspectacular compared to former bandmate Robbie Williams. But, to be fair, so has pretty much every other Nineties pop star’s.
Through TV, charity and musical theatre work, Barlow has cultivated an old-fashioned, all-round entertainer persona. Yet for a musician as talented as Barlow, there has always been something artistically crucial missing from his oeuvre. It may be as elusive as originality or as fundamental as a genuine sense of self. Barlow is so adept at assimilating the style of artists he likes (from Elton John to Coldplay) he doesn’t seem to have anything you could really identify as his own.
This pastiche aspect works to his favour on an album unabashedly digging into an archaic musical form. The orchestrations and big band arrangements joyously reflect Barlow’s affection for the swing era, the melodies are expansive enough to exercise his impressive vocal range, while smart lyrics counterbalance his instinct towards sentimentality. Comedian, actor and talk show host James Corden proves an amiable duet partner on The Kind of Friend I Need, a delightful ode to bantering camaraderie that concludes with Corden crowing “I was the best in that song” and Barlow crooning “So was I!”
At least half of these songs have the ring of absolute showstoppers from West End musicals. Robbie Williams has proved a past master of reheating the American songbook. Barlow goes one better by composing all his own humdingers. If Sinatra was still swinging, he’d grab a fistful for himself.
Music Played by Humans is out Friday 27 November