Album review: Robbie Williams, Reality Killed the Video Star


FAME is, indeed, a fickle mistress. Back when Take That announced they were reforming as a quartet, there was speculation that their comeback could not hope to succeed without Robbie Williams. At the time, their prodigal brother could afford to be cocky about his non-participation. Four years later, Take That rule the world, while Williams is by no means a sure thing.

Most of his best-loved songs are a decade old. His last album, Rudebox, was a wilfully tuneless, unlovable affair and he's been preparing a follow-up for three years – a long time in pop music. The cheeky charm has waned and been replaced with banal self-obsession. He didn't find himself during his aimless sojourn in California; neither, it appears, did he lose himself, which could have made for an interesting comeback.

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Instead, he has returned with the car crash awfulness of current single Bodies, little more than a string of buzz phrases, signifying nothing. It's enough to make you hark back to Rock DJ with affection.

But contrary to this inane taster, Reality Killed the Video Star is a reasonably efficient return to safe radio-friendly pop form, with ace producer Trevor Horn's hand steady(ish) on the tiller. The album title is a smirky reference to Horn's big Buggles hit Video Killed the Radio Star, and there are more cringey puns where that came from, most of them nonsensical. When Williams does resort to plain English (more often than it might feel), he doesn't stray too far from his favourite subject – Robbie Williams.

One example is opening track Morning Sun. This fairly elegant but Beatles-lite orchestral pop number was a last-minute addition to the album, which was co-written with lyricist Don Black, ostensibly in tribute to Michael Jackson. Who's buying that? As Williams admitted at his Electric Proms concert: "It's actually about me again." There are references to stars shining but also self-doubt, delivered in understated style as a reminder that Williams can be quite sensitive when he's not being sarky or bumptious.

The rest of the album is a pick-and-mix of tried-and-tested Robbie styles. Superblind is a soaring ballad in the vein of Feel and No Regrets, though inferior to both. You Know Me, set to be the next single, is slick, radio-friendly doo-wop pop with just the right amount of mobile phone-waving potential. Sensibly, he keeps the chorus simple: "Since you went away, my heart breaks every day, you don't know 'cos you're not there."

But Williams cannot resist the pull of entry-level wordplay for long, asking "What's so great about the Great Depression – was it a blast for you? Because it's blasphemy" on the pseudo-reflective piano ballad Blasphemy. Williams has collaborated with a long list of songwriters on Reality… but this is the one he co-wrote with his old partner Guy Chambers, him from back in the days when Robbie was king of the world, and with whom he seems comfortable to go more than skin-deep: "The cellophane around my mouth stops the anger seeping out" is quite a vulnerable admission from the perpetual entertainer.

It is Robbie the tedious joker who wins out on Do You Mind, a disposable Sunset Strip faux-rocker which opens with the promise that "this is a song full of metaphors". Spare us, please.

Williams again retires to safer ground with the sleek, banal electro-pop of Last Days of Disco and Starstruck, the latter particularly reminiscent of George Michael's later snoozier efforts. Difficult For Weirdos, his celebration of the outr, shoehorns in lots of tedious rhymes but also boasts a stronger melodic hook and sounds like it could be slotted quite happily in to the Little Boots or La Roux setlist.

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The spacey electro ballad Deceptacon is slightly different again, drawing musically from the bygone likes of ELO and 10CC and, lyrically at least, attempting some state-of-the-nation comment. You don't get that with JLS.

Arguably the biggest departure for Williams is the power pop closing flourish, Won't Do That – a departure in that he devotes one of the album's better choruses to pledging loyalty (of sorts) to someone other than himself. He can probably afford to be magnanimous, as Reality Killed the Video Star should do the job of rehabilitating a career that was starting to look a bit flaccid.

The folks at the Brits seem to think so: Williams has been confirmed as the next recipient of the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award. His outstanding contribution to bad puns, passable pop and narcissism remains steadfast.

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