Another year, another Robbie Williams album – and we’re only just clear of the last single from his 2005 effort, Intensive Care. Rudebox’s title track, released as a baffling lead single based on Sly & Robbie‘s melody line from Boops (Here To Go), isn’t particularly indicative of the sprawlingly bold variety of the parent record. But Rudebox is not without its problems.
A 17-track opus of mainly electro numbers, laced with “rap” and some nods to soul and that nebulous genre name, world music, Rudebox feels hurriedly thrown together, with no time left to edit. It veers between interpretive covers and self-regarding collaborations. Taken together they suggest an unfocused talent that increasingly prefers to leave writing to those more capable.
He references Madonna twice, first on the wannabe anthem/love letter She’s Madonna and the tongue-in-cheek/slap-in-the-face Marsha Thomason Vogue-alike duet The Actor. But where Madge sticks with one – two at the most – producers per album, giving her records a consistency and taking ideas to their logical conclusions, Robbie’s scatterbrained approach to album creation threatens to overwhelm.
At least the names he chooses to work with bring the record some credibility. Duetting with Lily Allen he covers Manu Chao‘s Bongo Bong/Je Ne T’aime Plus, with DJ/super-producer Mark Ronson on producer duty. Not for the first time, Pet Shop Boys are on hand for an added spray of sheen to the glacially excellent She’s Madonna and the cover-of-a-cover, We’re The Pet Shop Boys. Lily Allen also pops up on Keep On, while fellow Stoke boys Soul Mekanik are responsible for four tracks, including the title number. William Orbit glosses a so-so cover of Human League‘s Louise and Stephen Duffy‘s name is added to the melange with a cover of his song Kiss Me.
Allen’s contribution to the bizarre Keep On – nothing to do with the Will Young track of the same title – presents Robbie as singer-rapper, and reminds us that when he wants to have a voice, it is there to be used. But on Rudebox he prefers to rap rather than sing, a decision as unfortunate as it is cringeworthy. His bored, deadpan voice is only part of the problem – his lyrics, notably on the co-written The 80s and its companion piece The 90s (lyrically a re-imagining of his Take That years), would be laughable if they were funny. Take That manager Nigel Martin-Smith reportedly found the latter anything but.
The three tracks Ronson works on, notably the Lewis Taylor cover and second single Lovelight, are a cut above much of the rest of the record. Kiss Me is high camp – part Stock Aitkein and Waterman and another Art of Noise, it should go down great at G-A-Y and with Eurovision audiences.
Good Doctor juxtaposes a Stoke-accented verse ramble with a chorus of ill-advised Jamaican patois, while Never Touch That Switch is a welcome change of pace with a hooky warped synth chorus. We Are The Pet Shop Boys sticks tongue firmly in cheek, getting Neil Tennant to drone backing vocals about his own songs.
But all too often Rudebox plays like an undeveloped collection of half-baked ideas. Robbie’s core audience, who continue to bleat for Angels each time he appears on stage, are likely to give Rudebox short shrift. While not without its humour and invention, the record suggests the artist doing whatever he pleases, whenever he chooses to, for a maximum of five minutes each time before becoming bored. His references to ADD in The 80s – “School was a laugh, they didn’t have ADD, thick was the term they used for me” – may help to explain this. Or perhaps the “secret” track Dickhead is closer to the mark, though such suggestions should apparently never be made within earshot of Robbie’s security people.
Rudebox ultimately is, as a whole, several decent records whinnying to escape from development too early, resulting only in an expensive-sounding missed opportunity. Robbie would do well to refrain from releasing yet another album in 2007 – and when he does follow up Rudebox there should be fewer collaborators, fewer karaoke covers, fewer tracks and some attention to purpose. Less, as Rudebox too amply demonstrates, is often more.