In the final battle between Good and Evil, when 'cool' and 'alternative' music takes on 'plastic' pop made by major-label 'puppets', where will Robbie Williams stand? ...

IN THE FINAL BATTLE BETWEEN Good and Evil, when ‘cool’ and ‘alternative’ music takes on ‘plastic’ pop made by major-label ‘puppets’, where will Robbie Williams stand?

And what about [I]you[/I]? Will you line up with the likes of UNKLE’s James Lavelle, who branded [I]NME[/I] ‘scum’ for putting Robbie on the cover instead of an impeccably ‘credible’ genius like, erm, himself. Or will you remove that rod from your sphincter, throw away those ugly designer trainers and accept that Abba will [I]always[/I] be superior to Sonic Youth?

Tough choice, right? But don’t ask Robbie, he’s as confused as everyone else. Remember, just three years ago he wanted to be Liam Gallagher, a Kylie-esque craving for indie cred which almost killed him. Since then he’s been a bovine sex god, rehab fuck-up, cabaret clown and UNICEF ambassador.

But it was orthodox major-label songwriting which rescued his nose-diving career in the form of ‘Angels’ and ‘Let Me Entertain You’, thus setting the quality benchmark for this record.

And boy, what a record. Working with producer and co-songwriter Guy Chambers and apparently without chemical enhancement, Robbie’s writing skills have improved enormously. His Oasis fixation still hovers over chugging guitar anthems such as ‘Strong’ and ‘Phoenix From The Flame’, but the tone is more thoughtful and less triumphant these days: [I]”Is this real ‘cos I feel fake/Take a pill and numb the pain”[/I].

The imperial duffers which littered ‘Life Thru A Lens’ are barely in evidence. And brazen, Bond-sampling single ‘Millennium’ aside, camp melodrama takes second place to downbeat vulnerability. In fact, elegant falsetto weepies like ‘She’s The One’ could almost be Embrace. His weakness is everyone’s business.

There is impressive diversity too, including a Pet Shop-esque study of love-gone-sour called ‘No Regrets’ with backing vocals by the two Neils, Tennant and Hannon. But ‘Karma Killer’ provides the pinnacle of weird, an operatic thrash-metal vengeance ballad possibly inspired by the singer’s ex-manager. [I]”Why was I never good enough?”[/I] demands Robbie before raging, [I]”I hope you choke on your Bacardi and Coke.”[/I] Crikey. Rock’n’roll! So what do you really want from a mainstream pop album? A sinister undertow of gothic revenge or breezy retro-lounge crooning? Towering gospel choruses of [I]Jesus Christ Superstar[/I] dimensions, or softly strummed tales of shattered self-esteem? Nightmare visions of hell as a health farm or hidden tracks suffused with flickering heartache? Huh?

Because you get [I]all[/I] that here, plus the warmly engaging confessions of a volatile, insecure, crying-on-the-inside clown who just happens to be the biggest star in Britain. The 24-year-old chancer who chased the Holy Grail of credibility but lost his way spectacularly, thus proving himself far more akin to Jarvis Cocker and Thom Yorke than he ever dreamed.

Sure, Robbie’s still more Michael Barrymore than Michael Stipe, and he’ll never be ‘cool’ by that constipated, soul-crushingly snobbish James Lavelle definition. But he’s a natural-born star and he wants you to love him. ‘I’ve Been Expecting You’ provides 12 good reasons why you should.