Almost exactly a year since his last LP release, the Sinatra-style Swing When You’re Winning, the Robster is back in time for Christmas with an album that marks a turning point in a career characterised by them.
Since proving that there was life after Take That – at least for himself – Robbie has grown to be one of the UK’s most bankable stars through his enduring songwriting partnership with Guy Chambers and his cheeky chappie antics which have been likened to Norman Wisdom. But while there’s little doubt that Robbie’s stage presence and tabloid-grabbing antics have greatly assisted his records’ sales figures, he’s usually backed this up with music that’s something of a cut above prefab boyband fare, if a cut below completely credible.
Last year’s Albert Hall performance and the album of swing covers – including a Christmas chart-topping duet with Nicole Kidman, of all people – was a totally unexpected turn for this most unexpectedly enigmatic figure, but it was far from his last transformation. Like all the star entertainers, Robbie is a highly successful chameleon and a passable magpie.
Escapology, released after he re-signed to EMI for tens of millions (and that same label shed heaps of jobs), has been mooted as a “Robbie gets tough” exercise, where the boyband star turns mature and credible, as stated by the vaguely Beck-like opener How Peculiar.
He hasn’t sacrificed accessibility, though. Guitars, rock ethics and some swearing (Come Undone, Me And My Monkey) all point to a man who with one action comes over as a Norman Wisdom-like comedian and entertainer (no change there, then), yet with another, wants to be taken seriously as a musician. Highly-polished first single from Escapology, Feel, is being released after the album in a move calculated to show Robbie is, rather than a kid-pleasing singles act, a more mature musician with broader appeal.
But there are signs that the balancing act is beginnning to be a little too much. Lyrically, Robbie seems more able than ever to express his mixed-up inner self, for there’s plenty for the psychologists amongst his fans to get their teeth into throughout this record. On Come Undone he declares “I am scum”, but on Song 3 he says “I feel gigantic”.
Then we launch into Me And My Monkey, a story told in the style of Scott Walker to music of a (somewhat) Mexican nature (that’s the trumpets, then). But it deals with prostitutes, drugs and material possessions in typically graphic style. And how about this from Cursed: “Held my hand when I got my first tattoo / I was naked when it penetrated / Told everyone I’d slept with you / Thought you’d like it, knew you wouldn’t deny it.” Work that one out if you dare. “I’m a star but I’ll fade,” he sings on the Radio Ga-Ga tribute effort that is Monsoon. There are various references to sucking batteries, lithium and Kurt Cobain – and the impression is made that, far from “killing himself off” Robbie Williams has found himself and decided he’s actually much more interesting than anyone thought.
But as with most of Robbie’s music to date, production on this album often niggles. Love Somebody’ is an anthemic obvious single and a highlight of the record, but it borrows heavily from the overblown but nonetheless gripping crescendos of Queen, a band with whom of Robbie has also performed in times past. But Revolution is an altogether different beastie, featuring the soulful vocals of Rose Stone and a funky beat. Chambers’ production, however, smothers both tracks in an anodine wash of radio-friendly pop, ironing out their individually spiky characteristics into a one-size-fits-all finished mix.
That’s before we hear Robbie’s take on PJ Harvey‘s Big Exit, called Song 3, and the obvious single Hot Fudge, which comes over as more than usually influenced by his LA experiences.
The Robster’s next album will give us a verdict on what he’s like without Guy Chambers to hold his hand, but Nan’s Song gives a pointer, despite being produced by Chambers, for the writing credit is solely Robbie’s. The rather surprising thing is, it’s one of the understated highlights of the record. Maybe Robbie’s future looks less anodine, overblown and a little more interesting – especially if you stick with ‘Escapology’ to its “hidden” track finale. The man’s an entertainer, sure – but this album is nothing if not a statement of intent from someone who wants it to be known that he’s a credible musician too. Escapology poses more questions than it answers, but the benefit of the doubt is happily given.