Celebrating 25 years of his solo career, the sometime Take That star returns to his best work in a series of new orchestrations with the Metropole Orkest
Britain was a very different place when Robbie Williams first went solo. Finding himself in between Euro ‘96 and the advent of new Labour, he was part of a whole series of new dawns. The Spice Girls were Britain’s biggest group, replacing Williams’ old band Take That for the time being – giving Robbie the ideal opportunity to strike out on his own.
Seizing the opportunity with both hands, he delivered a string of memorable hits, capturing both the optimism and bluster of the time with unerring accuracy. In doing so he sold stacks of albums (now 80 million and counting), backed by a team of exceptional musicians including his songwriting partner Guy Chambers, with whom he formed a lasting and fruitful partnership. Now, with Williams celebrating 25 years as a soloist, he returns to his best work in a series of new orchestrations from a heavyweight team of Jules Buckley, Steve Sidwell and the returning Chambers. As he follows Take That in using a new guise for old compositions, do the songs still have relevance?
New song Lost helps provide the answer. Containing Williams’ best vocal performance in ages, it has a deeply felt admission at its core acknowledging how he – like so many others – got carried away on a high of ‘90s optimism. “Who am I fooling? Well, I got a list,” he sings. Things are different now, and this song, tailor made for radio, hits the nail squarely on the head.
In keeping with Lost, the orchestral perspective brings out darker and needier lyrical elements from songs like Feel (“Come and hold my hand”), Angels (“Through it all, she offers me protection”) and I Love My Life (“I pray that I’m giving you all that matters”). The lyrics are more meaningful not just because of Williams’ new take on them but as seen through their new musical prism, beautifully realised by the Metropole Orkest.
The new guise turns The Road To Mandalay, Come Undone and No Regrets into powerful slow burners, Williams’ heart more subtly on his sleeve. Millennium acquires a silvery elegance, its John Barry connections enhanced by tasteful muted trumpets. Strong and Eternity have a touching vulnerability, while Supreme gets an Autumnal chill, though saving its Gloria Gaynor quote for the break doesn’t fully divert attention from its gawky lyrics.
Ironically the better known, up-tempo numbers are less successful. Let Me Entertain You flags, sung at a lower pitch with Williams less eager to play the clown. Rock DJ and Kids (with a new Kylie Minogue vocal) are also a tone lower and are relatively subdued, in spite of imaginative settings. Candy, a Marmite song if ever there was one, also takes a flatter profile. This relative trough of the biggest hits is rescued by Angels. Overplayed but still a calling card of 1990s pop music, it finds renewed strength in orchestral coating, and the vocal responds in kind.
Robbie Williams, then, is well on the way to achieving his aim of being ‘old before I die’. XXV proves that his best songs are here to stay, fronted by a musical personality that might be short of Rat Pack dimensions but which can still command an orchestra. Williams’ next move will be telling, for while this album buys him some time it also plants him squarely at a crossroads. What can’t be disputed, as he approaches 50, is that he still has plenty to offer as a storyteller and performer.