In common with other great British institutions, Robbie Williams has been hovering around our media-saturated lives for a lot longer than many of us realise. As the man himself nears his 40s there are a lot of boxes being ticked on the lengthy compilation set In And Out Of Consciousness, an album that will surely dominate what is left of the country’s charts for the rest of the year.
The rather odd retro haircut that Williams is currently sporting adds a po-faced seriousness to the album cover, harking back to the man’s failed attempt to conquer the American charts at the start of the 00s. All of which sits even more oddly with the news that Williams has rejoined the all-conquering Take That and helped them record their new album, the kind of adroit move that has managerial pressure and marketing strategy written all over it.
In many ways this compilation is the perfect summary of one of the more unusual pop stars of our generation. Williams was always desperate to please and even more eager to be loved, from living it large with a slightly befuddled Oasis at the start of his career to the ‘I’m doing it for my mum and dad’ cod-Rat Pack nadir that was 2001’s Swing When You’re Winning.
The great British public went with him on that one (proving that the public are not always right), but potentially more interesting departures into electro-pop, dance rock and alternative rock later in the decade were met with dwindling sales and general bemusement. And with good reason, as Rudebox (2006) and Reality Killed The Radio Star (2009) were bizarre albums that hinted at a slight desperation from an ageing pop star.
Of course the other defining streak of Williams’s career has been a welcome contrariness, the kind of cheeky bird-flipping that meant he was always streets apart from his Take That mucker Gary Barlow. And surely it is Williams who is behind the nonsensical track listing on this compilation, which works backwards chronologically through his career to end with the fan pleasing Take That favourite Everything Changes. His greatest songs therefore fall somewhere between the end of the first CD and the start of the second, which may make some marketing sense in an alternative universe staffed by PRs with a sense of humour.
What should not be scoffed at is just how many good songs Williams released in the halcyon days of the late 90s and early 90s. Whatever some people think of it, Angels is beloved enough of the great British public (them again) to earn the accolade of the nation’s favourite funeral song. The likes of Feel, Strong and No Regrets are not that far behind either in the pure pop stakes, and reveal Williams to be an underrated ballad and mid-tempo rock singer.
The input of Guy Chambers was crucial to Williams’s solo career taking off, and his falling out with the ex-World Party man following the release of 2002’s Escapology coincided with a dip in Robbie’s commercial standing. Recruiting Stephen Duffy (another national treasure, albeit a small country cottage to Williams’s stately pile) was an interesting move, and the album they recorded together Intensive Care (2005) is one of the singer’s most underrated, but Duffy lacked Chambers’ intuitive grasp of what makes a mainstream pop hit.
Williams floundered around between the likes of William Orbit, Mark Ronson and Trevor Horn in the late 00s to little avail, and it is little surprise he returned to Barlow to try and revive his flagging pop fortunes. The duo’s Shame (which opens this compilation) is a bit wooden musically, but Williams does manage to turn in wry, self-deprecating lyric that bodes well for his mature years.
When he next records a solo album is anyone’s guess, as the Take That collaboration is bound to extend that band’s second stab at a pop career for another few years. For the time being Williams’s horde of young and not so young fans will have to make do with this bizarrely sequenced but ultimately enjoyable collection.
Robbie Williams’s In And Out Of Consciousness: Greatest Hits 1990-2010 is out now through Virgin Records. It is available as a two CD standard edition, a three CD deluxe edition with rarities and B-sides, and a DVD edition featuring three DVDs.