Friday, November 13, 2009

Album Review: Robbie Williams - Reality Killed the Video Star (4.5/5)

"Here I stand, victorious" were the first words Robbie Williams uttered on his 2005 album Intensive Care. At the time, he was Britain's biggest-selling pop artist, having scored six #1 hits during the previous 7 years and sold many millions of his albums (2000's Sing When You're Winning and 2002's Escapology were the #1 albums of the year when released). Around that time though, he started to lose some luster. "Tripping" was Intensive Care's only top 5 hit, and it wasn't a #1. Then came Rudebox, Robbie's great musical experiment that failed to connect with the public--it ended 2006 as only the 36th biggest album of the year.

Not so victorious anymore it seemed, a fact acknowledged in "Morning Sun," the opening track of Reality Killed the Video Star, during which Robbie reflects "A message to the troubadour: the world don't love you anymore." Hardly a wallow in self pity though, Reality is a triumph, Robbie's best album since I've Been Expecting You. "Don't call it a comeback" he says on "Last days of Disco," as if not wanting to acknowledge he's been away. But the 3 years have done him some good it seems, moving him past the vain experimentation of Rudebox or bloated exaltation of Intensive Care.

The album has a good mix of grandiose pop and mellow lounge-ish songs. Nothing is really rocking, which gives it a nice laid back vibe. "Morning Sun" and "Bodies" are more on the epic side, rolled up in waves of guitar, drums and stringed orchestration. Robbie has always excelled at these kinds of songs, and it's nice to hear a focused emphasis on making good pop hooks. As usual though, Robbie isn't always seriousness, lightening the mood with a nod to the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" during "Morning Sun's final third and provocative religious lyrics in "Bodies." "You Know Me's" lush instrumentation is tempered by its '60s doo-wop melody. It's a good choice for the album's winter single.

Guy Chambers, the longtime Williams collaborator who has been absent since Escapology, co-wrote "Blasphemy," a lovely piano and strings ballad that has clever, if meaningless, lyrical phrases ("What so great about the Great Depression?"). "Do You Mind," the album's rockiest tune, recalls the sunny, carefree pop rock of songs like "Jesus in a Camper Van" or "South of the Border."

"Last Days of Disco" transitions the album to its groovy late-night middle. It's heavy '80s-styled synths recall Pet Shop Boys, whom Williams worked with on Rudebox, but like every other song here, it's produced by Trevor Horn. I'm sure you've all read he was in the Buggles, and that's why the album's title nods to his band's breakthrough hit "Video Killed the Radio Star" as well as offering a commentary on the current state of British pop music (although the man himself wasn't above appearing on The X Factor to perform "Bodies").

"Somewhere" is a brief interlude of orchestrated drama before "Deceptacon," another lovely piano ballad, which has nothing to do with the Transformers, but rather lost love it seems. It's followed by the rather fabulous and very '70s sounding "Starstruck." It recalls the kind of stuff George Michael was doing in the '90s. That this lightly disco-ish track is followed by the album's most clubby entry, "Difficult for Weirdos." It's also PSB-ish and nicely sequenced the follow the disco track.

"Superblind" is a pretty gentle ballad with soft guitar and keyboards, as well as strings later in the song. "Won't Do That," a pretty upbeat and stagey number is the last song on the album, which closes the album with a pretty good whiz-bang moment before ending with a brief reprise of the darker opening track, "Morning Sun."

I'm really quite happy with this album. It's got a lot of gorgeous big pop moments, as well as quite a bit of nuance. Male pop stars are an endangered species these days, so it's nice to see one that's always shown such promise and talent not throwing in the towel but doing something really great.

Best: Bodies, Morning Sun, You Know Me, Starstruck, Blasphemy, Deceptacon


Chris B. said...

I think I'd rather see Robbie Williams naked than hear him singing about it ("Bodies"), but that's just me.

A1 said...

Nice review , getting my copy on the weekend. I loved "Rudebox" so if its a move forward and has elemnets and i quote you "PSB and George Michael" well i can't wait !

Chris B. said...

"Rudebox" = Greatest song ever.

Lisa said...

Great review. I've loved Robbie ever since his Take That days (Love Take That too BTW). I downloaded this from iTunes, but now feel that I need an actual disc as well.