It’s been exactly three years since we last heard of Robbie Williams in any meaningful capacity. Then, it was the controversy over his single -Rudebox,’ one of the most self-evidently awful specimens of pop music in recent memory. The song earned its creator more mainstream exposure than his last album, 2004’s forgotten Intensive Care, had, but that’s about all it achieved. Putting paid to the lie that all publicity is good publicity, Robbie’s image took a complete battering. The similarly-titled album went briefly to #1, and he was praised in some quarters for his ingenuity, but most commentators (and consumers) saw Rudebox for exactly what it was: shit.
Robbie has long yearned to be seen as a visionary and an innovator, but Rudebox saw him branded a clown, an image he’d spent half his post-Take That career trying to shirk. In a further twist, he’d been broadsided by his former bandmates: the reformed Take That’s 2006 album Beautiful World easily outsold his latest, making a mockery of suggestions they could never do it alone. The most iconic popstars, however, have an uncanny ability to re-invent themselves in the public eye. Remember, Robbie Williams was, and still is, Britain’s most successful solo musician of all time – imagine if Madonna was British. And in that most Madonna-esque way, Robbie has managed to ghost back into the public consciousness with characteristic ease: nobody really noticed he was gone, but now that he’s back, he’s everywhere.
It would a bit much to call Reality Killed The Video Star a ‘comeback’, but it is at least a return to form. There’s always been a sense that Robbie’s happiest singing ballads, but his most memorable tunes have almost always come when he’s let loose and surrendered to the bombast: everyone can hum at least a few bars from -Let Me Entertain You’ or -Rock DJ,’ but who can honestly say they remember -Misunderstood,’ let alone own a copy? -She’s The One’ was the only one to really buck the trend, but only -Angels’ managed to be both a heart-rending ballad and ridiculously overblown, and it’s in the territory of the latter that Reality Killed The Video Star attempts to position itself.
The record was recorded with producer Trevor Horn, the man who brought us -Video Killed The Radio Star’ from which the album’s title was derived, and first impressions are very positive. There’s an epicness to the entire affair that couldn’t contrast more with Rudebox‘s cool sterility -ironically, a quality Horn’s own music is known for. Opening track -Morning Sun’ demonstrates the change in focus from the off. It’s more Oasis than Gary Numan, and one of several songs that (not coincidentally) calls to mind modern-day Take That, opening with Disney-style orchestration before adding jangly guitars and -Penny Lane’-style trumpets. -Bodies’ is an even bigger shock, as Robbie tries his hand at Georgian choral singing before wisely given way to a thundering synth-bass line. -Do You Mind’ is a glam stomper that channels -Let Me Entertain You’ and Pulp’s -Disco 2000’without capturing the brilliance of either, while second single -You Know Me’ boasts the sort of subtly melodic chorus Morrissey turns out every now and then, but whose chart prospects are similarly dismal.
Like Morrissey, Robbie’s eccentricities are well-known. Britain’s answer to Jim Corr claims to have seen three UFOs and thinks the US government was behind 9/11, but his lyrics on Reality Killed The Video Star are whacky in their own, entirely complementary, way. Robbie’s never shied away from the big topics, but here he seems committed to tackling 2 or 3 per song. -Bodies’ takes on issues of body image and the existence of God without ever saying anything about either. -Difficult For Weirdos’ might just be the most ham-fisted attempt to relate to ‘the youth’ in modern memory, with lines like ‘I got my eyes made up / at the bus stop / by my girlfriend’ and ‘He is a lesbian / But that’s OK.’ -Deceptacon’ invites the listener to ‘Microwave yourself today,’ but his post-apocalyptic vision of the world doesn’t sound quite as menacing as he probably intended: ‘All over Britain / We wait for permission / To join another queue.’ V For Vendetta it’s not.
The electronic elements embraced on Rudebox haven’t been entirely exorcised, though. Robbie’s appearance on the Pet Shop Boys’ 2008 single -She’s Madonna’ has clearly had a reciprocal effect on the singer. -Last Days of Disco’ pays homage to the British synth-pop boom of the mid–80s, sounding like a slowed-down version of the Eurythmics’ -Sweet Dreams’ with the airy, multi-layered vocals of the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant. -Difficult For Weirdos’ is even more naked in its admiration of the Pet Shop Boys, while -Starstruck’ appears to be some sort of reverent tribute to George Michael’s -Fastlove’ era. None comes close to matching Rudebox’s unfortunately overlooked -Lovelight,’ but neither is there anything as terrible as Rudebox – musically at least. The majority of Reality Killed The Radio Star takes place in familiar territory, a competent retread of old ground, and some new. But history may not be so kind.