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To open your pop record with acoustic guitars can signal a certain seriousness of purpose. To arrange your pop song with the help of a string section, ditto. Begin, like “Back For Good”, with both at once and the message seems unavoidable: this is the big one. This time, we’re Doing It Properly.
Or maybe it just looks that way with hindsight. “Back For Good” seems an awfully self-conscious record to me: a deliberate, almost overthought shot at classicism. It’s an unctuous record, with a naked craving for respect. But perhaps it only looks that way because, well, it worked. This is the point at which Gary Barlow stopped being the entrepreneurial leader of Britain’s biggest boy band and started getting himself fitted for his Statesman Of Pop robes. It’s the moment he became a talking point – of course, he’s always been a great songwriter – by squeezing his typical, meandering songs into an airtight pop structure and throwing strings and harmonies at it.
Great songwriter or not, he really has always been a canny businessman – if he bet the farm production-wise on this one, it’s probably because he realised you don’t uncover choruses as fantastic as “Back For Good” very often. It’s their most famous song because it’s their best hook – when it hits, your doubts about the record slip away. He’s also giving it his best as a vocalist too – if the “fist of pure emotion” is ridiculous, his pained, tender “can’t you find a little room inside for me?” is the perfect lead in for that hug of a chorus.
The song’s subject and its vibe align nicely, too – if this is the neediest of pop songs on a meta level, well, the lyrics are all to do with confused, desperate, pleading: that much-mocked (and mockable) “whatever I did, whatever I said” is also its most naturalistic moment, genuine if awful male confusion, much better than the hand-me-down pop poetics of lipstick on coffee cups or whatever.
Later, the song’s canonisation was joined by another inevitability. This was Take That “maturing”, and what happened to boy bands when they mature? They split up. The reality was doubtless muddier, and later events made it messier still – but at the time, the brief rest of their career felt processional, a coda to “Back For Good”’s deliberate, slightly laboured greatness.