Millennial ‘It’ Boy gets the horn on eighth album
Remember the end of the century? Swedish hit machines, moronic nu-metallers, robotic R&B: the republic of pop was without government and needed a dictator, benign or otherwise, to get the trains running on time. Enter Robbie Williams, Dickensian music hall rascal bedevilled by vague demons, the Aldi Lennon to Gary Barlow’s Lidl McCartney.
Robbie gave the dark age its theme song (‘Millennium’), its look (silly semi-mohawk, frayed blue jeans and snazzy shirt) and presided as its avatar, ushering in the love-me-I-hate-myself X Factor culture of fast-track stardom. He was the bloke every likely lad dressed like, pursued by party girls in search of their Friday night Robbie-proxy.
So, Williams was a charismatic but strangely blank figure, all things to all consumers. Even his singing accent was a placeless mid-Atlantic twang, and his records embodied the point where chart music disintegrated into a vortex of Beatles nostalgia balladry, bad rock jokes (‘I Hope I Get Old Before I Die’), even worse Rat Pack pastiche and oddball electro, an Eastenders interpretation of pop mythology.
To be fair, Robbie, who always comes across as a troubled but essentially decent soul, has made a few fine singles, mostly plaintive cries like ‘Feel’ or mini-epics of self disgust like ‘Come Undone’. Ten years after ‘Millennium’, Reality Killed the Video Star is his eighth album. He’s kissed and made up with co-writer Guy Chambers and hired one Trevor Horn, and the production, as one would expect, is huge. In a way, they’re a match made in heaven. Bob’s a talented dilettante, Trev’s a rapacious hitmaker, the electric kool aid Spector with a penchant for ostentatious choral flourishes.
The opening ‘Morning Sun’ is Robbie on familiar ground, a big Beatles-y feel-bad ballad. He’s ditched the ironic smirk for a sort of weathered humility (“Who am I to rate the morning sun?”). It may have been inspired by Michael Jackson’s demise, but it could’ve been lifted straight off Escapology. ‘You Know Me’ is bare-all doo-wop with Lennon echo on the voice, ‘Blasphemy’ quintessential Williams, a downer ballad laced with bitter one-liners, turbo ego vying with low self esteem. The listener is torn between wanting to bring the guy chicken soup and pack him off to the army. Then, like a man who hits the gym to cure a broken heart, he rattles off a moxified glam tune like ‘Do You Mind?’ (“Anyone fancy Monaco?”). ‘Somewhere’ remoulds West Side Story as jealous guy Plastic Ono Band interlude. ‘Last Days of Disco’ and ‘Difficult For Weirdos’ draw on both Kraftwerk and Visage circa 1982 before modulating into Pet Shop Boys nightclub booth confessionals.
Robbie Williams has always flitted between styles, maybe because his primary motivation is not to create, but to entertain. No bad quality in a pop star, but the payback is he’ll always be at the mercy of his rather substantial audience. Reality is an uneven but gung-ho record that sometimes sounds like an elegy to the last days of the big stars who actually sell records. It now seems quaint that his handlers request reviewers to sign and return a confidentiality contract before they’ll sanction a pre-release copy of the album. Times have changed, and it’ll be interesting to see how Robbie the young lion becomes Robert the lion in winter.
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