There’d be plenty to enjoy here, if only he’d stop trying so hard…BBC Electric Proms, Roundhouse, London, Tuesday, October 20
Robbie Williams is a bit choked up. Stumbling over his words, he announces, “This was me auntie’s favourite song. And I’m sure she’s looking down on us…” Everyone in the packed and dangerously over-excited Roundhouse falls into respectful silence. “She’s not dead,” Robbie continues, “she’s just really condescending. COOOME ON! This is ‘Feel’…”Wacka wacka, badoom tish! Williams in a nutshell. Mugging comedian, emoter supreme, contradictory, unpredictable, irritating as fuck. Business as usual, then, for his first gig in three years.
Well, nearly. It’s a more settled and more mature Robbie before us – reconciled with Take That, clean of His Drug Hell
(© The Sun), dressed down in sober steel-blue shirt, jeans and loafers, no UFOs in sight. He’s also backed tonight by a mini-orchestra of 38 musicians, led by ‘Reality Killed The Video Star’ producer Trevor Horn.
Ah, and it’ll be nice for us all to relax. Reviewing Williams used to be pointless; being a postmodern, self-contained kind of pop star, he did it for you. Everything you could say he’d already put into a lyric so pun-filled and tortuous you had to step back in wonder. Tonight, ‘Come Undone’ illustrates Old Robbie perfectly, with its belligerent binaries that the besotted crowd chant back at him: “So self-aware, so full of shit… so need-your-love, so fuck-you-all”.
New Robbie, sadly, can’t leave off that doggedly clever-clever wordplay. ‘Bodies’, a painfully obvious,
er, aping of Ian Brown’s baggy hip-hop swagger, is passable, but laboured phrases such as “I got laid on the leyline” are clunking obstacles. ‘Blasphemy’ puns its title with “not a blast for me”. As if it wasn’t quite clear enough what he did there, Williams pauses, and says, “Clever, see? No GCSEs or anything.”
And yet, and yet… when he lets go for a second, as on the spine-tingling ‘Feel’, all is forgiven. Of the new tracks, next single ‘You Know Me’, a warm, soul-soaked number, and the vibrant ‘Won’t Do That’ come closest to the kind of classy, easy pop his erstwhile bandmates have nailed so effectively. But then there’s ‘Space Oddity’ pastiche ‘Deceptacon’, about which the best that can be said is that it makes you want to go and listen to Le Tigre. I mean, “Microwave yourself today/Save it for a rainy day”? STOP IT.
Closing with a cover of Horn’s own one-hit wonder with Buggles, ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, he turns it into a hen-night hoedown, his sequin-clad opera-singer jazz-handing like she’s on Wheel Of Fortune. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Are we having fun? It’s still kind of hard to tell with Rob.