As opening lines go, Ghosts’ “Here I stand victorious, the only man who made you come” is amongst the higher echelons of bombastic ballsiness. Guy Chambers, Robbie Williams’s co-writer for all his big hits including Angels, has been replaced by The Lilac Time‘s Stephen Duffy, yet it’s clear that Intensive Care is a Robbie Williams album, but a development on its predecessors.
Lyrically, Stoke’s stratospheric son is a Jekyll and Hyde character of self-adulation and self-loathing. Lines like the one above are so absurd as to be laughable, but there are plenty of moments when he comes across as tragic rather than comedic as he craves attention, understanding and respect as a serious artist. It’s this personality trait writ large through Intensive Care that steers its lyrics clear of the buffers of the banal, though several points threaten such a diversion.
Perhaps this is also why this record’s press release is one of the largest I’ve ever seen for an album (only Mariah Carey could trump it), and why the “brief biog” is a raft of statistics – biggest audiences, biggest sales, biggest… well, he doesn’t quite go that far.
The trouble is, unless one has recently returned from an extended sojourn to Jupiter, one is well aware of who Robbie Williams is. He’s scarcely been out of the limelight since he was a teenager. The constant need to restate how big he is becomes ever more irritating.
Yet for all the pretence, boasting and cocky swagger, the man has undeniable talent for creating songs people sing. On this record, depending on one’s point of view, they’re more fully realised or more bloated and self-indulgent than anything he’s done before. But certainly his magpie-like quality of picking the best bits of other people’s music to create something of his own remains intact.
Eighties revivalism is alive and well here too, not least on Tripping, the lead single. It’s an odd song that reaches into ska and electroclash and somehow still became a single (amusingly described as “his attempt at a mini gangster opera”). It’s one of the better tracks on what turns out to be a surprisingly varied record.
It’s Robbie The Rogue’s least immediate album and needs several listens to get to grips with, but Intensive Care feels like Robbie has allowed himself freedom of expression, even if he doesn’t always know how best to use it. Sparking off Duffy he seems to have selected a range of vocalists to imitate and adapt to his own ends. So it is that we find the spoken-sung vocals of Spread Your Wings sounding remarkably like Lou Reed in the verses before heading back to a made-for-drivetime chorus.
Further on we have a Rolling Stones homage with A Place To Crash, one of the most overblown blasts on the album that even finds time for a Blaze Of Glory type acoustic guitar twang or three before the rollercoaster gets going again. This is bound to be a live favourite, with vocals that lie somewhere between Jagger and David Bowie.
Also energetic is Your Gay Friend, a power-pop stomper that features some lovely lyrics about having an affair with a married woman. It’s Robbie all grown up.
Sin Sin Sin, one of the album’s catchiest tracks, proves Robbie’s vocal ability when he reigns in the histrionics and lets the lovely lower end of his range loose. A metronomic, Human League-like arpeggiated synth pulse accompanies our hero’s musings in the verse. There’s a token babble about being made in Jesus’s image, but the song seems to be about pining for a lost love – in common with much of the album. With a chorus curiously bereft of a rhythm section first time, it’s an oddball arrangement that suddenly changes by the second verse to radio friendliness.
It may be indicative of Robbie’s desire to head in an experimental direction, but he always brings himself forcibly back from the brink to MOR, making sure those EMI shareholders get their dividends.
Random Acts Of Kindness plays like an MOR Smiths attempt, all hanging electric guitar notes while his voice sounds just a little like fellow LA-residing expat Morrissey, but The Trouble With Me, which starts promisingly aside from some characteristically vulgar lyrics, becomes repetitive, is too long and lacks any spark. It’s the sort of thing Ronan Keating might aspire to if only his music was in any way interesting. Scarcely better is Advertising Space, described by Robbie as his own Candle In The Wind – and his voice does remind of Elton John.
The final notes of maudlin closer King of Bloke and Bird are all ambient synth and guitar drones – an unexpected, Sigur Ros-like reflective conclusion to an album, but Robbie delights in unexpected endings. It’s also a welcome change of pace, and one of the real growers of the record.
Robbie The Ridiculous is, it seems, a smart cookie let down only by the UK’s comprehensive education system. His motivation seems to stem from an expectation that he is better, deep down, than he appears, but he doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to demonstrate his considerable talents to his own satisfaction, and this annoys him. It might annoy him less if he noticed a world beyond himself from time to time and perhaps set about writing material addressing it, but I’m not holding my breath.
He’s a sentient, though not intellectual, being who remains one of pop’s most interesting characters. “Please don’t read my mind, I tell the truth to me” he says. However pervasive his demons are, they don’t stop Robbie Williams’s tightrope balancing act between pub bore self-laceration and swaggering, rogueish entertainer par excellence. Intensive Care suggests this revitalised man who is muse unto himself will be entertaining anyone who doesn’t mind his self-regarding bombast for some time yet.