The pop star we know as Robbie Williams – the one whose £80 million contract with EMI was the biggest recording deal in history, and whose song ‘Angels’ is among the top 10 most-performed at funerals, was really a creation of two people: Williams, the frontman, and Guy Chambers, his co-writer – the ego and the engine. Williams owes his post-Take That success to a run of Chambers-penned mega-hits in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, including ‘Let Me Entertain You’, ‘Rock DJ’, ‘Feel’, ‘No Regrets’ and the aforementioned ‘Angels’. But as with any unequal partnership, there was friction between Williams and Chambers, and the pair fell out in 2002.
Without Guy, Robbie is an unstable entity. His work with ’80s pop star Stephen Duffy yielded 2005’s ‘Intensive Care’, notable for its lack of any songs you’d remember. Its follow-up, ‘Rudebox’, saw Williams attempt a reinvention as an electronic Ian Dury, working with an army of co-writers and producers including Human League frontman Phil Oakey, Mark Ronson, William Orbit and Sly & Robbie and collectively producing a great, big mess of an album – the title track itself was dubbed the “worst song ever” by The Sun.
The following years have been ones of mixed successes for Williams, who has flitted in and out of Take That, picked up hits with decent pop songs such as ‘Candy’ and maintained an interest in UFO-hunting in the deserts of America. His last album was 2013’s ‘Swings Both Ways’, a lazy return to his default mode as a pier-end Sinatra.
So it was no small news when Robbie announced he was reuniting with Chambers for new album ‘Heavy Entertainment Show’, his first for new label Sony. The expectation is for a return to Williams’ imperial phase; the reality – unveiled today – is something completely and utterly nuts: ‘Party Like A Russian’.
Madder than ‘Rudebox’, Robbie’s new single marches along with the pomp of the Soviet army, packing in a string of clichés about oligarchs, the space race, Russian dolls and Rasputin. Not Russian-y enough yet? There’s also a booming cossack choir and the strings from Prokofiev’s ‘Dance of the Knights’ (the theme from The Apprentice), like some half-remembered nod to ‘Millennium’’s use of John Barry’s ‘You Only Live Twice’.
Robbie said of the song, “It’s not about being Russian, but it’s about partying like a Russian,” explaining precisely nothing. “The person singing is a bit me, and a bit a character.”
It’s the sound of the Pet Shop Boys doing a selfie on Red Square; a would-be theme to Carry On Up The Kremlin. It’s potentially pretty offensive to 143.5 million people. It’s like something from a past era and a pop song from another dimension all at the same time, and crucially, it’s interesting – and that’s something we haven’t been able to say about Robbie Williams for a long time.