Even pop idols have pop idols. For all his antic capering and moth-to-flame fondness for farce, there’s always been a suspicion that Robbie Williams would very much like to be taken seriously. With this collection of Rat Pack standards, culled from a era when wit, timing and glamour ruled the entertainment universe, he pays tribute to his heroes Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin in a low-risk strategy: if the project fails, it can be passed off as Christmas marketing and novelty pastiche; if it succeeds, then he can stake a claim to the heavyweight entertainment crown. The first new track is an orchestral splurge entitled ‘I Will Sing And Hollywood Will Listen’ – pre-emptively self-mocking, perhaps, but telling all the same.
Unfortunately, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what entertainment is. For Frank Sinatra was not a [I]’crooner'[/I], nor did he [I]’belt out'[/I] songs; he was one of the most gifted interpreters of popular song the world has ever heard, blessed with a voice that could make the tritest moon/June lyric sound like Shakespeare in love. The necro-techno ‘duet’ between Williams and Sinatra on ‘It Was A Very Good Year’ might well be the living man’s dream come true, but it’s cruelly unhelpful. Sinatra’s voice flows like a skilful, silky seduction. Robbiesounds like his next audition piece will be something from Cats.
To be fair, on a vocal level, Robbie acquits himself with dignity. Admittedly, it would take the massed forces of the WWF to destroy such cast-iron classics as ‘Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me’ and ‘Mack The Knife’, but only ‘Mr Bojangles’ comes close to a grisly song-massacre. The peerless ‘One For The Road’ sticks somewhere around competent and Nicole Kidman’s appearance on ‘Somethin’ Stupid’ is agreeably husky, but it’s the jokey ‘take-my-wife’ moments that overreach least. The arch duets with Rupert Everett on ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ and, on ‘Me And My Shadow’, his flatmate Jonathan Wilkes are all the better for being shameless supper cabaret. Throw in Steak Diane and a bottle of bad claret, and it’s like being there.
Ultimately, though, ‘Swing When You’re Winning’ is a consumer artefact made for Christmas Day biliousness, the point in between the end of the Beano annual and the start of Morecambe & Wise. It mistakes celebrity for entertainment, cabaret for class. It’s Geri Halliwell as opposed to Ava Gardner, Rupert Everett as opposed to Sammy and Dean. Somethin’ stupid? You’ve got it.