British pop music looks to be turning full circle. Four years ago we had the reunion of Take That – but now even Spandau Ballet have dusted off their suits. And The Bee Gees are back! So where does this leave Robbie Williams? Is reality TV, with the X-Factor and all its byproducts, about to kill the video star?
Not on this evidence – though a lot has changed in the last three years in Williams’ world. After the career magpie that was Rudebox, a sizeable misjudgment of the UK pop climate, he’s not going to make a mistake this time. He’s grown up, settled down, and the new songs reflect that safer maturity.
As a result those seeking the return of the cheeky chappy might have to look elsewhere, as there are only the slightest glimpses of the rogue. This is far more like a big band version of George Michael‘s Older than a funked-up Faith, safe in the knowledge that it has a killer tune or two, but not executing them with the same vitality of years ago.
Comparisons with Older are revealing, for Robbie sounds a bit world weary here at times, and the orchestrations are layered on thickly in an attempt to bring some brightness to the grey. Sometimes this works – with the electro swagger of Bodies a case in point – but other times the colour is a pasty, codeine white. It comes as a relief when the guitar punches in on Do You Mind, and the Williams spark returns.
Lyrically the sound bites are often on the money, but it’s the personal feelings that carry a greater weight. “All we wanted was to look good naked,” proclaims Bodies, perhaps somewhat predictably. “All over Britain we wait for permission to form another queue,” he sings in Deceptacon. Ten years ago this would have been a knowing, tongue in cheek lyric delivered to the gallery. Now it’s a world weary observation from the other side of the pond.
Far more telling is the over-scored You Know Me, despite the recurrence of an Emmerdale-like piano line. “Since you went away my heart breaks every day,” he emotes, “you don’t know ‘cos you’re not there.” The minute-long Somewhere, meanwhile, is beautifully pointed. “You take your chance in life, go out and find a wife, don’t get stuck in the state I’m in,” he ruminates, then quickly gathers himself. “Someone, somewhere, is loving you”, he reassures.
Elsewhere there are a couple of ultimately failed attempts to get on the electro pop bus, with Last Days Of Disco too understated in its conviction and Difficult For Weirdos over projected, with Williams deadpanning, “Every Saturday at the plaza, guess the gender, unless you’d rather”. There follows a football chant of “weirdo” which is, ultimately, weird.
A couple of enjoyably raucous big band songs close the album, with Won’t Do That finding Williams in a state of contentment, proclaiming “suddenly I’m not the jealous guy” before really flexing his vocal chords at last, while Superblind starts off in soft rumination, but gradually opens up into an epic chorus.
Yet while Williams has some points to make, and often makes them well, he does so largely lacking in the confident strutting that has characterised his best songs. This new found maturity suits his voice on one hand, but given his musical past it makes him a far safer proposition than he used to be.