These are curious times for Robbie Williams. The most populist of pop stars, his previous solo album Reality Killed The Video Star sold in numbers which would make most of his peers jealous, yet its music notably failed to gain wider cultural traction. In fact, it’s arguable that it’s been some years since he produced a bona fide pop smash which listeners beyond his sizeable fan base could recall (it’s not without irony that the most likely candidate for this is The Flood, his reunion with Take That).
Instead he sells millions and fills arenas based on his name and his sizeable back catalogue. Being a legacy act, however, is anathema to what Robbie Williams is about, and it’s notable that he is not held in the same musical esteem as other British superstars like Elton John and George Michael. No, Robbie has always wanted to be loved (and only makes sense) as a current force, and he will certainly find validation in Take The Crown’s lead single Candy providing him with his first UK Number 1 in eight years.
Nonetheless, Candy is a neat précis of the problems facing Robbie in 2012. Its bouncy dancehall brass is undeniably and infectiously catchy but it’s also short-lived; the song leaves no impression at its end. Crucially it sounds not unlike Olly Murs, Robbie’s former duet partner on X Factor, who has turned a facsimile of the older star’s cheeky charm into multi-platinum (but completely unmemorable) musical success and TV stardom. If anything, this sense of a pop star as someone who could easily front a light entertainment show seems closest to an enduring legacy for Robbie. The days when his success led solo Spice Girls to pen clunky faux-confessional lyrics in emulation are long gone.
Indeed, the stalling of the once-unconquerable pairing of Robbie and Gary Barlow on 2010’s Shame behind Cee-Lo’s technicolour Forget You looks in retrospect like a sea change moment. The manic, idiosyncratic personality of the latter is exactly the appeal Robbie trades on, and its effortless brilliance threw the anaemia of much of his recent work into sharp focus (and given Barlow’s co-writing of Candy, it perhaps influenced that attempt at larger-than-life jollity.)
Still, Robbie is nothing if not self-aware and (as its title suggests) these concerns loom large over Take The Crown. Be A Boy is a bold opener, combining synths and an ’80s-David Bowie saxophone with a Kings Of Leon-esque vocal hook that seems almost obligatory on current pop singles. It sounds confident, modern and convincing as Robbie declares “they said it was leaving me, the magic was leaving me, I don’t think so.” Perhaps in a nod to his younger competition, he declares that he “can make this last forever and be a boy.” He’s not ready to leave the charts to One Direction just yet, then.
Gospel finds him following through on the promise, singing “I am 16 and I love you and I’m standing on your step” while pleadingly reminding the listener “baby, we’ve got history”. The song, like several others on the album, gives the sense that Robbie remains stung by the malling received by Rudebox and is trapped in second-guessing his audience with variations on the kind of guitar-driven anthem he can toss off in his sleep. The relaxed electro-pop of Shit On The Radio is a welcome deviation, even if it acquires a hint of bitterness given his recent removal from the Radio 1 playlist.
The album suffers from an uneasy tension between this desire to stay at the top of the pop heap while engaging in the kind of self-reflection you would perhaps expect of a man approaching 40. Hunting For You and Into The Silence are stately efforts which recall U2 and sit uneasily alongside an inconsequential Hey Wow Yeah Yeah, which fancies itself as Song 2-meets-Ça plane pour moi while being nowhere near as good as either.
Make no mistake, Take The Crown does Robbie well enough to ensure it will sell in quantities to make Olly Murs weep. Aside from its undertone of paranoid desperation, however, the album is a largely by-the-numbers exercise and seems almost certain to quickly fall off the public consciousness. This poses a problem for an artist as predicated on relevance as Robbie. It’s perhaps instructive that the highlight of the album is the closing Losers, a cover version of The Belle Brigade where Robbie (unexpectedly accompanied by American singer-songwriter Lissie) wearily observes that “I don’t care about any of that shit no more”. Given the preceding 40 minutes, this isn’t exactly convincing; but the song is a refreshingly sincere, adventurous accomplishment which hopefully offers a glimpse of how he will proceed as he enters middle-age.