Born of Anglo-Irish stock Williams seemed destined to enter the world of show business when he took the role of the Artful Dodger in a school production of Oliver! and started to show prowess as a singer and dancer. At 16 he was the youngest member of Take That, the outfit he joined in 1990 and helped transform them from standard Boy Band fodder into something with integrity and household appeal that has survived nigh on 25 years. He sang the lead on such Take That hits as “Everything Changes” and “Could It Be Magic” before extricating himself to pursue his solo dream. His first single was a slow burning cover of George Michael’s “Freedom” but his partnership with Guy Chambers was a more significant turning point. Already a fixture in tabloid columns and on TV stations Williams’ effervescent personality made him an instant hit with the public and such is his charisma there was no point in the snootier world of rock criticism ignoring him. They did so at their peril. The debut album, Life Thru a Lens would go on to sell 2.4 million copies and is currently certified 8xPlatinum. Small wonder. The hits were so strong that everything else fell into place. “Angels” and the signature tune “Let Me Entertain You” were and are natural crowd pleasers but they are way more than that. They have the memorable hooks and the emotional depth of classic pop.
While the title of Life Thru a Lens could be construed as indicative of Robbie’s life in the public gaze there was still an element of "can this be sustained?" No worries once the Bond inspired I’ve Been Expecting You arrived complete with trademark raised eyebrow a la Roger Moore on the cover. Mixing elements of cheeky, chappy and extreme chutzpah this disc is a 24-carat marvel. “Millennium”, which borrows well from John Barry’s theme music for You Only Live Twice, was his first British number one (“Angels” hit number two) and the Karl Wallinger/World Party-penned “She’s The One” duplicated that feat – as indeed did World Party’s original. Just as good is “No Regrets” - featuring Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy.
Ostensibly a fond adieu to the rest of Take That, in recent years the lyric has been altered to add a far more positive spin. Proving that he wasn’t just a pretty face either Williams was all over the writing with Chambers and they’d formed a formidable alliance that swept them through Sing When You’re Winning.
Now this is again a total recommendation. It’s well worth discovering for the tracks “Supreme” and the ferociously energetic “Rock DJ”, itself inspired by Robbie’s UNICEF mentor, the late Ian Dury. Around this time the Williams effect – where everything he touches turns to gold (or multi-Platinum) really does kick in and his fame now is such that he can boss massive crowds in Europe, Australasia and Latin America.
The track “Kids” is a collaboration with Kylie Minogue (they toured together in 2000) while “Better Man” shouldn’t be overlooked - it’s a first rate ballad in any language, including Spanish because by now Williams’ was savvy enough to offer multilingual versions of key songs. Smart chap.
The all dressed up and somewhere to go brilliance of the standards styled Swing When You’re Winning, where the Robster tackles “Somethin’ Stupid” as a duet with Nicole Kidman, revived that lovely slice of bittersweet easy listening for a new generation or two. Never lacking ambition Williams also gets into character for “Have You Met Miss Jones?” “One For My Baby” and an audacious ‘duet’ with Frank Sinatra on the perennially lovely “It Was a Very Good Year”. The Royal Albert Hall show that launched this extravaganza has gone on to become one of the biggest and fastest selling DVDs of all time. The album? Oh, only 2 million and something sold so far. Nothing fancy.
On Escapology (2002) Robbie makes inroads into the US market, taking more control of the writing and still turning in the best selling album of the year. Unusually, the biggest hit on this recording is “Feel” where the demo is used rather than anything grander. Once again the boy done good because this is his biggest international hit.
Following a hiatus from studio work we rejoin Robbie for Intensive Care (2005) where he is now teamed up with Stephen Duffy of TinTin and Lilac Time repute. While all his albums to this time have been packed with obviously immediate material Intensive Care starts to offer a more introspective and mature look at life in the modern age for a man entering his thirtieth years as the biggest pop star on the planet. The songs, co-written with Duffy, take Williams down different avenues musically and lyrically and the standouts include “Tripping”, “Make Me Pure”, “Advertising Space” and “Sin Sin Sin”. But if anyone thought this meant the outcome would be a difficult album they were wrong. Again the sales are phenomenal. As with most of the Williams oeuvre this is available in Special and Deluxe formats with a wealth of TV appearances to capture the moment in this instance.
Never overly anxious to stay in one place Robbie’s Rudebox surprised those who didn’t think he could embrace dance technology with such ease. Working with men of the zeitgeist like Mark Ronson, William Orbit, Pet Shop Boys, Joey Negro and Soul Mekanik this is by far Robbie’s most eclectic disc. He writes with the Pet Shop Boys, he covers Stephen Duffy’s “Kiss Me” and Manu Chao’s “Bongo Bong and Je ne t'ame plus”. This album didn’t exactly slip through the net (hardly likely since it has so far gone Platinum in 15 countries) but it’s one we feel deserves reappraisal.
Likewise Reality Killed the Video Star (2009) produced by Trevor Horn and utilising many of the Sarm/ZTT personnel associated with this esteemed British control man. “Morning Sun” written with James Bond lyricist Don Black is about the perils of stardom and was initially penned in response to news of Michael Jackson’s death. It sets a standard for smart writing throughout with “Bodies” and “You Know Me” displaying a maturity and wit that is to be expected from such a consummate artist.
Take the Crown (2012) is the ninth studio album, so one might imagine his star is waning. No, sir. Look what happens! The lead single “Candy”, written with Take That’s Gary Barlow, goes straight to number one. This guy is here for the long haul, shifting the paradigm, working with Australian musicians, joining up with Irish producer Jackknife Lee, and taking time to return to the big London stage at the O2 Arena where more box office records topple in his wake.
Swings Both Ways is the second installment in his love affair with Broadway and the classic song era although this time many of the tracks are originals and Guy Chambers is back onboard. Guests include Lily Allen, Rufus Wainwright, Michael Buble and Kelly Clarkson. It’s a very swank and swinging affair.
As always when we have an artist of Robbie Williams’s stature there are numerous quality anthologies and other artifacts worth your time. Greatest Hits and In and Out of Consciousness: Greatest Hits 1990-2010 cover a sizeable chunk of golden brilliance while Robbie Williams: Classic Album Selection is an authentic gimmick free box set of the first five.
Better mention Live At Kebworth had we not?! This 2003 document is legendary and it seems like everyone owns a copy. If you don’t then join the millions who made this the fastest selling live album bar take That’s The Greatest Day.
And that brings us full circle. Mr. Williams … what is there more to say? He’s a national treasure with the keys to the magic kingdom. Let him entertain you. Resistance is futile.
Words: Max Bell
One of the best U.K. debuts of the '90s, Life Thru a Lens is an uninhibited joyride through all manner of British music, from glam to alternative to soft-rock to dance-pop. Beginning with the joyous "Lazy Days," the album continually betrays overt influences from Oasis and other Britpop stars, but triumphs nevertheless due to gorgeous production, Williams' irresistible personality, and the overall flavor of outrageous, utterly enjoyable pop music. Whether he's romping through aggressive burners like "Ego A Go Go" and "South of the Border," crooning on the ballad "Angels," or offering a slice of life -- working-class style -- on the title track and "Lazy Days," Williams is a pop star through and through. For those who appreciate great pop with plenty of cheek, Life Thru a Lens is an excellent album.
Words: John Bush
Poised for global domination with his third album, Robbie Williams and producer Guy Chambers hardly dared mess with the formula of their 1998 crossover hit I've Been Expecting You. As such, Sing When You're Winning has plenty of introspective balladry akin to "Angels," and a few irresistible party time tracks in similar company to "Millennium." The album also moves Williams farther away from the increasingly dated visions of Oasis-style Brit-pop to embrace post-millennial dance-pop, complete with the bruising beats and extroverted productions to match. And Chambers certainly knows his production playbook well, conjuring a panoply of classic British rock touchstones like psychedelia, slick country-rock, Ian Dury, the Who, Elton John, and Madchester. Despite a small drop in songwriting from its predecessor, Sing When You're Winning ultimately succeeds, and most of the credit must go to Williams himself. Amidst a few overly familiar arrangements and lyrical themes, Williams proves the consummate entertainer, delivering powerful, engaging vocals -- no matter the quality of the material -- and striking the perfect balance between tongue-in-cheek, self-mocking humor ("Knutsford City Limits") and genuine feeling (tender ballads like "Better Man" and "If It's Hurting You"). The radio-ready single "Rock DJ" is a piece of immediately gratifying pop candy floss with a surprisingly endless shelf life, though "Kids," a vivacious, vacuous vamp of a duet with Kylie Minogue, doesn't even hold its own after one listen. Toss in a few beautiful album tracks (the opener "Let Love Be Your Energy," "Love Calling Earth," "Singing for the Lonely"), but then counter them with a few bland singalongs ("Supreme," "Forever Texas"), and the result is a scattered, entertaining album whose real star is Robbie Williams' personality.
Words: John Bush
A more mature, calculated album from a pop star who's often gloried in being immature and spontaneous, I've Been Expecting You may suffer from comparisons to its excellent predecessor, but it also finds Robbie Williams weathering the sophomore storm quite well. While Williams' debut was infectious and outrageous, the second is indeed a more studied album. The opener, "Strong," begins very well, with the spot-on lyrics: "My breath smells of a thousand fags/And when I'm drunk I dance like me Dad," and "Early morning when I wake up/I look like Kiss but without the makeup." Many of the tracks on I've Been Expecting You show an undeniable growth, both in songwriting and in artistic expression; two of the highlights, "No Regrets" and "Phoenix From the Flames," are sensitive, unapologetically emotional songs that may not be as immediately catchy as those on his debut, but pack a greater punch down the road. Williams does indulge his sense of fun occasionally, playing up James Bond during the transcontinental hand-waver "Millennium" (which samples Nancy Sinatra's theme for You Only Live Twice), and simply roaring through "Win Some Lose Some" and "Jesus in a Camper Van."
Words: John Bush
Performance dynamo and chameleonic entertainment personality Robbie Williams made a rapid transformation -- from English football hooligan to dapper saloon singer -- for his fourth LP, Swing When You're Winning. Still, Williams' tribute to the great American songbook is a surprisingly natural fit with its intended target: '50s trad-pop patriarchs like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. And just like those two loveable rogues, Williams has brawled and boozed in the past, but isn't afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve; in fact, he's one of the few modern pop stars to fully embrace affecting balladry and nuanced singing. Williams and longtime producer Guy Chambers are also extremely careful with their product, so it shouldn't be surprising that Swing When You're Winning has innumerable extra-musical touches to carry it over: the cover features Williams relaxing in the studio in a period suit; his contract with EMI enabled the addition of the treasured Capitol logo at the top of the sleeve, and several tracks were even recorded at the famed Capitol tower in Hollywood.
Fortunately, Williams is no less careful with his performances. Since he lacks the authoritative air of master crooners like Sinatra and Bing Crosby (along with the rest of humanity), he instead plays up his closer connections to the world of Broadway. His readings are dynamic and emotional -- sometimes a consequence of trying to put a new spin on these classics (six of the covers are Sinatra standards, three are Bobby Darin's). He also invited, with nearly universal success, a series of duet partners: Nicole Kidman for the sublime "Somethin' Stupid," Jon Lovitz for the irresistibly catty "Well, Did You Evah," Rupert Everett for "They Can't Take That Away From Me," longtime Sinatra accompanist Bill Miller on "One for My Baby," even Sinatra himself for a version of "It Was a Very Good Year" on which Williams takes the first two verses (over the 1965 arrangement), then bows out as Sinatra's original counsels him concerning the later stages of life. Though it may be an overly close tribute to a familiar original (like many of the songs here), Williams' considerable skills with expression and interpretation largely overwhelm any close criticism. He's definitely much better on the comedy songs, especially the hilarious "Well, Did You Evah" (originally a duet for Crosby and Sinatra in the 1956 film High Society). Lovitz's rounded tones and faux-affected airs are a spot-on interpretation of Brother Cros, while Williams' emulation of a boorish lug ("That's a nice dress -- think I could talk her out of it?") is nearly perfect as well. Though arranger Steve Sidwell hasn't done many charts (and those for the movies Moulin Rouge, Bridget Jones' Diary, and Romeo + Juliet), he also acquits himself nicely aping classic scores for "One for My Baby" and "Beyond the Sea." The lone Robbie Williams original is "I Will Talk and Hollywood Will Listen," a sweeping pipe-dream fantasy of true American superstardom for Britain's biggest pop star. It could happen, too; Pierce Brosnan surely isn't growing any younger.
Words: John Bush
The careers of most music celebrities are like passenger ships, able to steam along nearly indefinitely without the least chance of modifying course. With his work of the 21st century, Robbie Williams appeared to have set himself on a course that was guaranteed to keep him working for decades, remaining important to thousands of fans, but never varying from the type of adult alternative singer/songwriter material expected of him. Then came Rudebox, which proves he's not that simple -- or at least, not that satisfied with himself. It may be a good album because it says little about his inner life and emotional troubles, which are unceremoniously dropped in favor of hyper-sexualized or sarcastic dance music and ironic laugh-getters ("Make your body shake like you stood on a land mine," "Dance like you just won at the Special Olympics"). It may be a good album because it has some of the best productions of his career, usually amped-up electro-disco from the duo Soul Mekanik or goofy hip-hop soul from Mark Ronson (which makes him come across as Justin Timberlake at some points and Gnarls Barkley at others). It's certainly a good record in comparison to its two predecessors, which suffered from a lack of vitality. (For example, while 2005's Intensive Care desultorily attempted to rewrite the Human League's "Louise," Rudebox simply covers the song, with much more feeling.) Compared to Escapology and Intensive Care, Rudebox is not only loose and fun but, for the first time in Williams' career, receptive to outside help; aside from the producers, Lily Allen and the Pet Shop Boys make appearances, and Robbie covers songs from Manu Chao, Lewis Taylor, Stephen Duffy, and the indie band My Robot Friend. Not that the record is perfect; in fact, it has a few of the most embarrassing moments in Williams' career. The lyrics occasionally devolve into hip-hop nonsense ("Got no strings, but I think with my ding-a-ling/Wu-Tang with the bling-bling, sing a song of Sing Sing"). "The 80s" is even worse, a nostalgic but monotone rap that oddly balances adolescent trauma and pop culture ("Auntie Jo died of cancer/God didn't have an answer/Rhythm was a dancer"). Still, the next track after "The 80s" is "The 90s," a surprisingly bewitching chronicle of his boy-band years from 1990 to 1995. The fact remains that every track here is better and more interesting than anything from the previous two LPs, despite the occasional embarrassing couplet or misguided musical idea.
Words: John Bush
With the news that Escapology would be the last Robbie Williams album recorded with producer/songwriter phenom Guy Chambers, fans began to wonder whether one of Britain's most durable pop forces would execute a disappearing act from the charts with a single album. Unfortunately, Escapology makes it sound as though Chambers has already left. Backed by stale songs, formulaic arrangements, and mediocre songwriting, Williams is forced to rely on his volcanic personality to bring this album across -- and despite a few strong performances, he sinks into lame self-parody time and time again. It's nearly impossible to reflect seriously on themes he's already broached several times before, as often happens here; "Feel" and "Love Somebody" are the usual looking-for-love songs, the latter with a set of trite lyrics cribbed from 30 years of rock & roll: "Always and forever, is forever young/Your shadow on the pavement, the dark side of the sun/Gotta dream the dream all over and sleep it tight/You don't wanna sing the blues in black and white." The Oasis flag-waver "Something Beautiful" finds Williams trying to keep on despite being tired with the modern world, while "Monsoon" and "Handsome Man" chart the usual celebrity regrets with an odd sense of arrogance and self-deprecation that isn't half as interesting at this point in his career as before. The highlights here are songs that barely would've made it onto Sing When You're Winning (much less his first two albums), and the sound is MOR throughout. Robbie Williams has never been an innovative artist, but previously his strong delivery and sly, ironic wit -- along with savvy production and songwriting -- kept any glimpse of cheese at bay. Escapology shows he's unable to avoid the trap.
Words: John Bush
Despite his constant self-deprecation, Robbie Williams is a shrewd artist, one who can tell when a change is in order. It's impossible to tell if he would have agreed to continue working with producer Guy Chambers had Chambers not been forced out of the chair by money matters, but Williams lost little time in finding another creative partner. Stephen Duffy may not be as fluent in the last 40 years of guitar pop as Chambers is, but he immediately announces a changing of the guard on the first track, "Ghosts," with his ringing guitar and keyboards. And it works, briefly. The trailer single, "Tripping," is a warm, clubby single that slightly resembles "Rock DJ" (and it is slight in comparison), but sounds like it could find a comfortable home on both adult alternative radio and the dancefloor. Williams goes for the jugular on "Spread Your Wings," an ambitious portrait of a lover's reunion (based, he says, on an alternate view of Human League's "Louise"). His lyrics, however, only sketch in the details, and Duffy's arrangement is a pale shadow of a Smiths song from 20 years earlier. It's possible that the partnership of Duffy and Williams can still bear fruit, but it will require not only better music from Duffy, but far better performances from Williams, who delivers his lyrics as though, at this point, his performing personality can just be filled in by his fans. (Of course, personality was one trait never in short supply on previous albums.) He rarely even sounds like himself, instead choosing to channel his '80s heroes -- Bono, Morrissey, George Michael, even Tom Jones briefly. It's important to point out that since Intensive Care represents a new direction and a new sound, it is much more interesting than the creatively bankrupt Escapology. Still, nearly all of the qualities that made Robbie Williams interesting between 1995 and 2000 -- his irreverence, his biting wit, his status as the thinking man's conflicted hooligan -- are merely memories after Intensive Care.
Words: John Bush
From most accounts, Robbie Williams' appearance at Knebworth over three August nights in 2003 wasn't just the largest concert in British music history (reportedly 375,000 attended over the course of the weekend), but a display of Williams' mastery of an audience and a confirmation that, American listeners aside, he's one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Live at Knebworth followed just two months later, a 72-minute collection from his two-hour live extravaganza. While the audio document isn't nearly as exciting as the live experience that made fans gush, the disc does transmit the massive amounts of energy at a Robbie Williams concert. Opening with his anthem "Let Me Entertain You" (as he always does), Williams keeps the crowd hanging on his every note, changing lyrics to fit the venue, indulging in his usual blend of faux arrogance and self-deprecation, and coaxing the audience on during every song. ("Show me love, Knebworth!") However, what could have been an excellent look at Britain's foremost pop entertainer in action is marred by its focus on material from his dreadful fifth album, Escapology. After a splendid beginning (including a brief flirtation with Queen's "We Will Rock You"), Williams performs four consecutive songs from Escapology: "Monsoon," "Come Undone," "Me and My Monkey" (which drags on for over seven minutes), and "Hot Fudge." The compilers found room to fit in two of his biggest songs ("Angels," "Kids"), but apparently didn't think superior hits like "Rock DJ," "Millennium," or "No Regrets" (all of which he performed at the show) needed to appear on this disc. A solid live album with the exception of the gaping hole in its midsection, Live at Knebworth is a missed opportunity, one that Chrysalis will hopefully rectify within a few years.
Words: John Bush
Robbie Williams' self-described busman's holiday with Take That during 2010 may have put a hold on his solo career, but it also rejuvenated his creative instincts. When he returned to the studio without Barlow & co. (actually, Gary helped write and produce here), he decided to focus on what he does best: commercial pop music. This is pop music the way he used to create it in the '90s and 2000s, with songs either silly or serious, but always self-referential and knowing. On the surface, all of these songs could be middle-of-the-road hits, although most reveal lyrics that dig just a little deeper than chart fodder. This is a record capable of reaching both the cheap seats and the fans screaming at the front, with big hooks, unmissable melodies, and Williams' by now trademarked brand of grandiose introspection and relationship examination. The trailer single "Candy" is a perfect example. A trite, uptempo track with a sing-song chorus but not much of a shelf life, it's the perfect radio hit. A few other songs are more interesting, including "Gospel" and the banner-waving ballad "Different," with tighter productions and more substantial lyrics. "Shit on the Radio" is an interesting detour, typically self-referential and self-disparaging and all the while rather gleeful about it, in a fashion that only Robbie Williams can risk and succeed with. It all sounds like the work that a member of Take That would be doing in 2012, without Williams' many hits of the past to draw on for setting expectations high. Take the Crown features Robbie doing what Robbie does best -- writing and performing effortless pop music -- but not at his best.
Words: John Bush
For Swings Both Ways Williams repeats and improves on the formula, with more original material by long-term songwriting partner and producer Guy Chambers, and a significant ramping up of both the cuddliness and the camp. Casting Williams as the nation’s wayward, cheeky Santa, it’s the audio equivalent of a festive shop window display, crammed with winter woolies and naughty underwear, topped off with vintage fairy lights. The album opens with Shine My Shoes, an original, though instantly recognisable and fairly forgettable, Williams / Chambers collaboration, with lyrical flourishes from Williams’s biographer Chris Heath. Here Williams affably dismisses his critics (“The way you don’t love me/ Kinda makes you look ugly”), before moving on to more personal material with another original song, Go Gentle. A cosy, swaying rhythm sweeps you through the tender, new father’s song of advice (“So when you go dancing with young men down at the disco / Just keep it simple / You don’t have to kiss though”). Then we’re into the first of the jolly, big band duets, as Olly Murs lends his laddish stylings to a knowing version of Louis Prima’s Jungle Book hit I Wan’na Be Like You. Later on, Lily Allen adds sweetness to bedtime classic Dream a Little Dream, Kelly Clarkson does cute on Bobby Russell’s Little Green Apples and Michael Bublé adds sparkle to a kitsch original, Soda Pop. But the star atop this album’s Christmas tree is the title track, co-written and sung with Rufus Wainwright. Amid a snow globe flurry of flutes and White Christmas strings, the pair have enormous fun singing about the urge to get high on “Pop rock and coke/ I’ll blow your sock off/ Teach you how to laugh at daddy’s dirty jokes” before sweeping into a grand chorus: “Everybody swings both ways / From the butchest of bandits / The feyest of f****** / And singers with everything they need… Face it, Robbie, you’re a little bit gay.” It’s the kind of direct, funny, slightly subversive truth that a major star would never dare deliver in the United States, and exactly why we love Robbie here. The album’s kiss-off, No One Likes a Fat Pop Star, is equally British, as the singer who was recently tormented by the tabloids joins an operatic choir to lament the temptations of curry and kebabs, and the paparazzi who’ve made being thin a compulsory requirement to enter the hall of fame. Our boy hasn’t just got Christmas covered, he’s worked in the January diet.
Words: Helen Brown