Here’s a true story I heard recently: a while ago in a university class, a lecturer played a piece which he described as being the only piece he could find that he thought every one of the students would find terrible. Hoots of laughter were heard during the performance, and that continued in the subsequent discussions. This all changed, however, when the lecturer told the class that the composer was Paul McCartney. Suddenly, criticism turned to forgiveness: because it was by him, he must have had a reason for writing it like that.
Now, I know reviewers such as myself are meant to be unbiased before listening to something. But Robbie is a subject that most people have a strong opinion about, so it was with a slight (ahem) amount of trepidation that I pressed the play button and listened to his Greatest Hits. You see, even though I’d liked what I’d heard of his, I had the vaguest inkling that Robbie Williams suffered from the it-must-be-good-as-it’s-by-Paul-McCartney syndrome.
Well, I was wrong. There, said it. It hurt to say it, but it’s true. What this album shows is that rather than people liking music by Robbie because it’s by him, Robbie makes such intelligent music that whatever style he covers, his fans will follow suit.
Such was the way with Robbie’s forays into swing (his 2001 album Swing When You’re Winning). This brilliant album (the only one I own, by the way) sold swing music to the general CD-buying populace, and is sadly bypassed in this collection.
His Greatest Hits span over seven years, starting at his debut solo album Life Thru A Lens, and finishing up with two new singles written specially for this album.
The songs are helpfully placed chronologically, so that we hear Robbie’s progression from whiney Gallagher-wannabe in Old Before I Die (probably the weakest song on offer) to the (more) mature, (genuinely) self-confident, (slightly) experimenting musician he is today. Okay, so Supreme, with it’s “I Will Survive” quote, is rather hopeless (taken from 2000’s Sing When You’re Winning: yes, there ARE two with similar names), but just as you wonder what all the fuss is about, he hits you with songs like She’s the One, Angels, and the greatest number one single you’ve never heard, The Road to Mandalay (the other side of the double-A side single Eternity).
EMI were presumably left speechless when Robbie said in an interview that he liked America because no one recognised him there (after signing an £80 million contract on the request that he conquered America). However, his first album under the new contract (Escapology) was his least commercial, and included such wonderful singles as Feel.
Now, here’s the thing: as I mentioned earlier, most people already have an opinion on Robbie, so his critics will ignore me and ignore the album, and his fans will ignore me and buy the album. So thinking about it, I don’t know why I’m writing this.
But, just in case anyone does care, I liked it.