Thursday, December 17, 2009

don't call it a comeback

Robbie Williams must find himself at a bit of a crossroads at the moment. One one hand, he's had a stellar career up to this point. On the other, after "Rudebox", which I thought was more brilliant than many others did, and an unexpected second wind for his former group, Take That, he must have had moments of doubt regarding his next musical move.

Years from now, after a bit of distance, I think "Rudebox" will garner more appreciation for two reasons. Firstly, it was a brave direction for Robbie when so many people kept wanting him to regurgitate "Angels" ad infinitum. Secondly, the album was one of the first to embrace the then oncoming wave of electro which has been fully realized by Lady Gaga, La Roux, et al.

After a three year hiatus, one which saw his former group, Take That, unexpectedly rise like the phoenix from the ashes to become one of Britain's most beloved institutions, Robbie might find that his stroppy attitude, which was once charming and endearing, is now childish and unbecoming for a man in his mid 30s. Funny how the tables turn.

So here he is with his eighth, solo longplayer,"Reality Killed The Video Star". The sleeve has an uneasy undertone about it. Robbie, after a wild ride on his motorbike, has reached the middle of the desert where he surveys the landscape around him pensively and says to himself, "How the hell did I get here? Which way to I go, now?" Which way, indeed.

After 27 top 10 UK singles following his tenure with Take That, Robbie is back with a brace of new songs all tied up nicely with a lovely bow. They all sound very adult but without the sparkle of past efforts.

Whereas Robbie was the face of youth with a rebel yell, there are others willing to be more daring and outrageous now. Unfortunately, that seems to be more important these days. And Robbie is all too aware of that. Hence, the title of the album. He grew up in public in the age of video. These days, he's all too boring for those that are stuck on the rotting stench of reality programming and the rapid fire, machine gun celebrity code.

However, it's possible that RW is acutely aware of his station within the music biz these days. After a decade long, white heat period, he probably knows his fanbase has grown up with him and are looking for an assured performance and less experimentation. Artists like Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey are always trying to remain on the current tip and almost always fall way short and feel out of step. With "RKTVS", Robbie appears to be transitioning into territory which will allow him to grow into a legacy artist rather than one that is desperately trying to remain relevant.

With that said, it makes sense that Robbie's new adventure is rather understated and safe. RedOne would've been the obvious choice of producer. But Robbie did electro before RedOne laid claim to the genre. Mark Ronson, busy producing Duran Duran, would've made sense. However, the tendency to do something 60s retro would not have done any favors for Mr. Williams. Please take note of the lackluster chart performance of the second single from "RKTVS", "You Know Me", with it's 50s flashes and doo wop leanings. It limps up apologetically to #15 on the UK singles chart this week

There goes Robbie tickling the homoerotic fantasy card again at around the 1.50 mark. He's such a tease. But isn't that whole "Am I straight or am I gay?" schtick getting long in the tooth?

Trevor Horn as producer is an inspired choice. He has unleashed his bass rumbling and orchestral apocalypse signatures all over "Bodies", the first single from the album. All the funky, edgy soundscapes he incorporated in groundbreaking recordings like "Poison Arrow" by ABC, "Relax" by Frankie Goes To Hollywood", "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" by Yes, "Left To My Own Devices" by Pet Shop Boys and "Crazy" by Seal are somewhat evident. But "Bodies", as well as the rest of its parent album, doesn't quite live up to expectations. RW produced by a legend with Trevor Horn's pedigree sounded like ear candy from the gods. And although the album is solid, it's not mindblowing.

However, Trevor is at his best when the artist is part of the process rather than an instrument within the production. Remember "Can't Fight The Moonlight" by LeAnn Rimes? Hardly anything groundbreaking, interesting or memorable about that.

Unfortunately, Robbie sounds slightly bored throughout "Reality Killed The Video Star". Or maybe that's the point? Perhaps that's irony at work. Somehow I doubt that clever turn runs that deeply.

The albums starts on a sombre tone with "Morning Sun". A lone harmonica and quiet piano peek through the early dawn of chirping birds followed by more than a few nods toward "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" while simultaneously having an early 70s, Elton John feel to it.

For all the excitement about getting longtime, "Angels" cohort and collaborator, Guy Chambers back on board, he only makes an appearance on one song. And it's the best one of the bunch in my opinion. "Blasphemy" has an old, English, pastoral, folkiness about it. Lyrically, it's the strongest prose on the album.

Robbie gets his cock out on "Do You Mind" which, upon first listen, sounds a bit unspectacular. But by the time I got through the middle of the song, I found myself chanting the naff chorus at the top of my lungs. LCD or brilliant song? Jury's still out on this one.

"Last Days Of Disco" wears its Pet Shop Boys influences proudly on its sleeve. But there's not a Tennant/Lowe credit in sight. The final crescendo which transitions from a sparse electronic arrangement into a full blown orchestral orgasm is breathtaking. Again, it's Trevor up to his old tricks. However, the lyrics have a ring of truth about them and surely hit close to home for RW:

Don't call it a comeback
We'll hold an event in here
This space is beautiful
I’ll decide when it is over
So don’t call it a comeback
Look what I invented here
I thought it was easy
They cant take it away from us
The last days of disco

Not sure how "Somewhere" fits into the album. It's a short piece which begins with pizzicato cellos, sforzando violins and somewhat demented backing vocals giving the minute long interlude a slightly creepy sound. It makes for a strange transition between the nervous grandeur of the previous track and the blissed out, comedown of the following song.

Which brings us to "Deceptacon", the second best track on the album. Its lush, late 60s, AM radio style harmonies remind me of Carpenters or The 5th Dimension. And "Starstruck" has a decidedly "Older" era, George Michael grooviness to it, but the chorus feels a bit lacking without a euphoric lift to push it along. If you close your eyes around the "ready, steady, go" lyric you'd swear GM snuck in on backing vocals.

"Difficult For Weirdos" returns us to PSB territory with more electronic, disco dabblings. I can't help think this might be a great single if only Robbie didn't sound so passionless. It's also interesting to note that it's one of three songs based on an original production by Soul Mekanik who were responsible for production duties on much of "Rudebox". It begs the question, "How old are these songs and how many hands did they pass through?"

"Won't Do That" has a jolly, English vibe about with its driving, pub piano and jubilant horns. It rises into a big chorus where Robbie sounds like he's having fun for the first time on the entire album. This would probably have been a better choice for second single.

Spooky, bubbling, rubbery bass lines, chiming guitars and ambient melancholy build into a power chord chorus on "Superblind" before sliding into a reprise of the albums opening track.

Overall, Robbie's charisma, charm and conviction seem to be missing from the album, but I think it might have something to do with the search for his next step. "RKTVS" is simultaneously a cautious step forward and look back for Robbie. Perhaps a bit like the moment when Madonna released "Bedtime Stories" after the dark, forboding "Erotica". So RW's album offers the opportunity to grow with him into the next phase of his career. After all, it is more about the journey than the destination.


  1. Trevor Horn is an inspired choice also considering the album title, huh?

    i am not a RW fan, but a long-time Stephen Duffy follower... is Duffy involved with this release at all as he has been with RW's recent work?

  2. @Anonymous - I've been a fan of Stephen Duffy since the beginning. I loved his work with RW. Sadly, there are no SD collabs or involvement the new album.

  3. i figured you were a Duffy fan. ;) thanks for the info.

  4. I'm a bit biased, but I think this album is solid through and through. It's not Robbie trying too hard, and as you said, trying desperately to fit in with what is hot and now. He's cut his own groove, and it fits him well. He's taking more of the "I'm being more of a mature artist" approach to it, rather than a rush job to appease those who were clamoring for his return. I was blown away by the crispness of each track.

    Me <3 Robbie.

  5. I've been a huge Duffy fan ever since I saw that cover (The Ups + Downs), daring me to listen to it. I have not heard his writing for Robbie Williams. While I appreciate the solvency it no doubt brought to his bank account, I was unable to go there. Actually, I have never heard Williams or Take That and would just as well keep it that way. Similarly, I eschew Duffy's work with Barenaked Ladies; a group which I have heard, unfortunately.

    As for Mister Horn, has he done anything I liked after "Left To My Own Devices?" That would be a "no." But for five years there, wow! Reflecting, are there any "hot producers" that matter to me any more? I don't think so...

  6. i'm a huge Robbie fan, but it took me a little while to really appreciate Rudebox and yet now it's one of the albums I return to of his most of all. I'm adoring the new album, think it's a really accomplished piece of work. Love the write up you did, great read, really insightful. I'm such a brown noser!!

  7. RKTVS isn't Robbie's best album. I think I also enjoyed Rudebox more, flaws and all, but that's what made it charming. Maybe too much silly rapping, but there were some cool songs and experiments there. As much as I love Stephen Duffy, I'm not sure Intensive Care lived up to the promise of the Radio single, a single that sounded like a template for the Rudebox album, a sound which was then abandoned, only to be brought back by the Rudebox team. I think RKTVS is better than Intensive Care, and it's the kind of album he needed to remind people that he is a good singer. Maybe he just needed a few stronger songs. There are some definite winners though, mostly what you mentioned.

    And well, to say Trevor Horn has done nothing worthy since "Left to My Own Devices"...I mean...Seal (especially the first album--"Crazy" is an undeniable classic) and Pet Shop's Fundamental album (did you hear "Integral")? Both smashing.

  8. To countpopula:

    I've got "Zance" on CD. It has the remixes from Seal's debut CD. So I've heard the single material. They are among the tracks I don't shuffle through but not the reason why I bought the CD in the first place. That would be the first appearance of Propaganda's "Duel" 12" on CD. Seal's not bad, but the pull from the 81-85 TCH era simply isn't there for me. Maybe it has to do with my advanced age (46). After all, I've now been around the block once or twice. I'm familiar with most of the conventions of pop/rock that have been mined/rediscovered/transformed from at least two generations of popular music. In some cases I was familiar with the first flowering of these traits. Others were familiar to me from their 2nd or even 3rd cyclical periods of rediscovery.

    As the popular culture has been technologically predisposed to recycle old ideas with new technology, the propensity for this snake-eating-tail scenario to predominate has become even more pronounced as I've gotten older. Long gone are the days when sounds were created by weirdos through hard work and creative vision. (see the first two Human League albums) Computers now make it a fast-paced procedure of trial-and-error to concoct the happening now sound. Moreover, the notion of sampling quickly evolved from a new form of sound synthesis (see peter gabriel III, IV) to simply a way of biting classic riffs and motifs (see almost all sampling post 1982).

    My point? I've seen a LOT happen in popular music of the twentieth century and beyond. I'm jaded. Cynical. And the technological trends of music making now only serve to exacerbate this cynicism. So take my middle aged griping with a grain or two of salt. Friends of my age discuss this phenomenon and we all agree for whatever reason, the pull and excitement of pop music is a young person's game, primarily. I remain engaged but my bond with pop music is primarily intellectual, not emotional as it once was.

    PBS P.S.

    As far as the Pet Shop Boys go, I bought everything I could get my hands on (and that's a lot) from 1984-1993. But the styles of remixes in the post-acid-house era weren't my cup of tea. Yet here I was spending upwards to $150-200 on all of the singles issued to accompany an album by a group I "collected "and not enjoying them. That didn't sound healthy. I really didn't like the remixes from "Very" so by my reasoning process, if I couldn't collect every little thing a group issued, then I wouldn't collect anything. Cold turkey. PSB stopped for me after the "Yesterday When I Was Mad" single. I've not heard a thing since. Depeche Mode and Erasure also hit the exact same skids at the exact same time for the exact same reason. So to answer your question, no I haven't heard "Integral."