Robbie Williams New Album Reality Killed The Video Star First Review
, October 29th, 2009 08:31
What do Morrissey and "the fat dancer from Take That" have in common? Well, quite a lot, according to Jude Rogers. Let her explain as she dissects Reality Killed The Radio Star . . .
OK, Quietus brethren, gloves off. Reality Killed The Video Star proves that you should all love Robbie Williams. You know, Robbie Williams – aka Blobby, The Blob, That Cocky Twat Who Fell Through A Door On The X Factor, Serves Him Right, Hahaha. Yes, you should. For even though this writer harbours obsessions for Kraftwerk, Joy Division, Joanna Newsom and the lesser works of Robert Wyatt's bumhole, she has also has space in her heart for the fat dancer from Take That. And in this track-by-track review, I will tell you why.
But firstly, my theory: Robbie Williams is the mainstream pop Morrissey. Some of the similarities are cosmetic. There's that greying quiff, the solid torso, the Northern shoulders for starters. Then there's the longing for attention, the need to clasp the hands of the sweaty front row. Then there are the wry asides live (Robbie in the Roundhouse last week: "My auntie's looking down on me...she's not dead, she's just really condescending"; Morrissey in the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, a day after leaving hospital, "The North Will Rise Again!"), and the self-awareness and self-flagellation that whip their songs into shape.
Then there's their beloved Manchester – ah, so much to answer for – creeping into songs from 'Suffer Little Children' to 'Munich Air Disaster 1958', from 'Knutsford City Limits' [Oh dear God, not another Cheshire versus Manchester versus Lancashire debate, Ed] to 'Burslem Normals'. Both men escaped from England to the bright sun of LA, and they have the glittering shadow of a big band behind them – OK, Take That aren't The Smiths, that's for sure, but give 'Back For Good' some credit for being their 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out'. And yes, these two little shits are proper fuckers at times. But they're also lovable showmen, trying to do something lovelorn and interesting and romantic with pop, and I love them for it. [Incidentally, for an instant hit of this RobMoz crossover, try his 2005 solo hit, 'Tripping' ("First they ignore you/ Then laugh at you, then hate you"). And then watch his Morrissey-aping hearing aid act on Top Of The Pops in 2000, or weep at the knowledge that the two of them nearly created the Britney/Madonna duet at the 2005 Brits. I am.)
And now Stoke-on-Trent's Robert Peter gives us his latest album, produced by the masterful Trevor Horn – the title is a nods to his big hit with Buggles. Question is, is it Robbie's glorious Viva Hate, or his deathly Kill Uncle? Read on...
Birds tweet, and a harmonica sighs, giving the album a sweet, folky start. But hark! Incoming soaring strings and a keening piano show us that Robbie isn't going down the eccentric route again, as he did on 2006's wilfully experimental, but occasionally brilliant Rudebox. "A message to the troubadour/The world don't love you any more", Robbie sings, the chutzpah no longer there, the sadness creeping in, in a vocal that shows what his voice really can do. Other nice lyrics shimmer here, too – "how many stars would you give to the moon?", Robbie asks his critics, before telling us what it's like to be"stuck inside the rainbow years". Even a middle-eight that nods towards the trippy oompah of 'I Am The Walrus' can't change a mood that is both grand but melancholy, epic but reflective.
You might have heard this one, pop-pickers. It's the new, sparkling single that Bob sang on the X-Factor, and although some muppets deemed his performance disastrous, it was actually far from awful – a welcome hit of weirdness in a show where the only signs of personality are always stripped out (goodbye wonky-haired, brilliantly odd Rachel Adedeji, hello straightened-haired, pretty-frocked Rachel Adedeji) or made into a farce (hello, John and Edward). With lyrics about entropy, bodhi trees, and a chorus that is Morrissey to the marrow – "God save me rejection from my reflection, I want perfection", he sings, as if he's channelling 'Let Me Kiss You''s "open your eyes, and you see someone that you physically despise" – it also finishes with a group of gospel singers hollering that "Jesus didn't die for us". Eat that, Cowell! This is what pop is for.
YOU KNOW ME
"If a man can be his own fantasy, then to only breed in captivity is pointless/I’ve been doing what I like, when I like, how I like, it’s joyless." Nonsensical and brilliant. Can more pop songs start with lines like that, please? I don't mind if it's to a furiously catchy, waltzy Motown beat either, or if includes lines about missing your ex and getting pissed on shit booze ("I’m doing fine and the sun often shines/What are you thinking?/I bruised up my mind with this Thunderbird wine/Baby I’m drinking"). Cheers!
OK, a duff moment – this one's slushier than a purple-raspberry ice drink that will turn your piss blue. Blame Guy Chambers, who wrote with Williams for his first three records, that all sold roughly seven trillion copies. This is a song from those early days, and although it's better than a poke in the eye with a glass shard, then "blast for you/blasphemy" pun in the chorus labours more than an elephant in her fourth trimester. More interesting stuff would come later, in the Stephen Duffy years – 2005's Intensive Care being Robbie's best record so far.
DO YOU MIND
Hmm, another wobbly one. This puts Status Quo, Slade and a gallon of glam-rock in a bottle, shakes it up, and make an interesting, if rather peculiar, froth. Mildly diverting, admittedly, but might give you indigestion after prolonged consumption, like most of Morrissey's plodding Boz Boorer moments. Extra points for the line "Bring some wine and some Sensodyne", mind you.
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO
But hoorah! KLAXON FOR THE ROBBIE-HATERS This one's for you, my darlings. A properly fantastic electro-pop epic that screams of the Pet Shop Boys and gives us a glorious reminder of Trevor Horn's pop-producing genius. Minimal, menacing, and lit up with mirrorballs, its chorus is also superbly sinister. "Don't call it a comeback", Robbie whispers, in a voice that still has a measure of sweetness, "Look what I invented here".
A weird track, but another great moment – a subtle, orchestral miniature introduced by plucked and bowed strings, and wordless vocal harmonies. Find your place to "lay your heavy head down", Robbie tells us, softly, and "take your chance in life/Go out and find a wife". It's like a recitative from a peculiar, melancholy musical, the kind that Antony Hegarty would kill with ponderousness, but Robbie brings alive with control and subtlety. About a minute long, too. Odd, but good.
"Microwave yourself today/Save you for a rainy day/Hello Deceptacon/This will not be going away". Another peculiar set of lyrics, floating on waves of reverb, sad strings and icy keyboards – rather fitting for a song about a deceptacon, a creature whose surface charm hides ugliness underneath. It's an unshowy meditation the shallowness of fame, with a fantastic, mournful outro ("who are you? who are you? And what are you to me? What can I do for you?"). Two prime Mozisms here, too: the peculiarly moving lyric, "all over Britain, we wait for permission to form another queue", and the wonderful departing gambit, "Send my best to all concerned/I know I've been a gracious host".
Goldfrapp's Felt Mountain, the Ipcress File Soundtrack and the shadow of Broadcast fall over the first ten seconds of this song about our obsession with celebrity, and you can't say that for the latest Westlife chart-topper. This soon gets a little too perky for its own good, admittedly, but it's far from Steps: The Greatest And Most Fucking Irritating Hits. "Knock one off the wrist", he sighs, devilishly, while he's "living in hysterica for everyone's betterment". Listen, grannies and goths: he's both bonkers and brilliant.
DIFFICULT FOR WEIRDOS
Synths! Swirly noises! Lyrics about "futurists in the bistro", boys getting their eyes "made up at the bus stop", and "psycho evolution"! Far less try-hard than it sounds, with a fantastically catchy tune that turns your head into happy mush.
WON'T DO THAT
Blaring horns and Elton John piano riffs bring the album to the close, with this being Robbie's last stadium-busting stand. It's an immediate track, certainly, but less interesting than his earlier songs. Nevertheless, its message is valiant, proud and direct, an oath to his girlfriend of three years, Ayda Field, that "I won't do that to you". He's not the jealous guy any more, either – "another sign that we're doing it right" – and as it sparkles through the speakers, you feel another Robbie is naturally emerging: someone shaking off the showiness, and letting his vulnerability become an unglossy reality, rather than a needy pose.
MORNING SUN (REPRISE)
We end where we began, that harmonica wailing just that little longer, with an instrumental outro only leaving our boy one last line to sing: "the evening is a mystery/the morning makes it history/Who I am to rate the morning sun?" The Ego that landed ten years ago has now withered away, and we find not a Maladjusted character, nor a Ringleader Of The Tormentors, but someone who has made pop's very own Vauxhall and I, full of melancholy and maturity. It makes him, at last, a genuinely charming man.