Oh, we’ve been expecting you Mr Williams. With your cheeky antics. With your lady friends. With your sinister Mr Big, Guy Chambers, the musical power behind your Posh-and-Becks-style throne. Come to bring us 12 songs that will join the illustrious canon of last-orders choruses, hen-night anthems and form food for Saturday morning pre-teen thought. Expecting you? We heard you coming: saying ‘I am Robbie Williams‘, again and again and again.
And now, on his third album, you have to start to wonder what exactly that means, what lessons have been learned. What, really, Robbie Williams adds up to. This is his naked, personal album, apparently (there’s a song called ‘If It’s Hurting You’, which we are helpfully told in all the pre-publicity information is nakedly and personally about his break-up with Nicole Appleton), so this should really be the place to start looking for insight.
And look! There’s… Oh. There’s nothing at all.
When people talk about pop stars being ‘manufactured’, you look at Robbie Williams and realise they don’t go far enough. Robbie now isn’t so much a created product as the full production line: his music fuels his celebrity, which fuels his lifestyle, which in turn fuels his music. We know about his love affairs, his drug problems, his drink problems, his bad behaviour and depression from the newspapers. Then on his records we can hear songs about what it’s like to have your love, drink, drug and behaviour problems written about in newspapers. “Press be asking do I care for sodomy… I don’t know, yeah, probably”, he says in ‘Kids’. He hates it all, but he’s mesmerised by it, locked in a terrible catch-22.
But, crucially, he doesn’t – or he simply isn’t able to – tell you what it’s like below the surface. It would be easy to say that ‘Sing When You’re Winning’ is simply a pop record and that to expect more from it is to judge it by unfair criteria. But nearly everything Robbie Williams writes is some kind of confessional and here it doesn’t quite come off. There just isn’t the sufficient depth of him in it to make it work. This is a work of fiction, where the central character is, metaphorically at least, wafer thin.
As a perfect meeting of style and content, therefore, it’s a masterpiece. This being another Robbie Williams record that says ‘I am Robbie Williams, The Pop Star’, the tunes here expertly (though maybe not as expertly or exuberantly as they did before) push your various pop-music buttons. Ian Dury (the single, ‘Rock DJ’), The Divine Comedy (‘Road To Mandalay’), Gloria Gaynor (‘Love Supreme’), country music (‘If It’s Hurting You’) and Krautrock (all right – but maybe next time)… all different stylistic bases are covered.
And this is worrying in a couple of respects. The great escape Robbie made from Take That was meant to be all about freedom, to be free of manipulation – now, five years into a solo career, he simply chooses to manipulate himself. Then there’s something he said recently about whether he was a good person to be in a relationship with, which is just as applicable to ‘Sing When You’re Winning’, since he said it “depended which Robbie you got.” Listening to this record, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t one thing about Robbie Williams that is unmistakable. Anything like a spine, an unshakable position, a personality. And that’s not postmodern – this is a 26-year-old man we’re talking about here. That’s just sad.
There are, nonetheless, a couple of good songs on here. Nothing to rival ‘Millennium’, or ‘Angels’ in the Williams stable, certainly, but ‘Kids’ (a rocking duet with Kylie Minogue and cousin to ‘Let Me Entertain You’) is, in spite of its comedy rap ending, pretty fine, while ‘If It’s Hurting You’ has a simplicity and directness lacking elsewhere on the record. But in its quest to fit in, ‘Sing When You’re Winning’ has essentially designed itself out of existence. It will politely insinuate itself equally into our homes and lives, our shoe shops and public houses. And it’s by Robbie Williams. Who you neither now wholly love or wholly hate, but to whom you have simply become completely indifferent.