Album review: Robbie Williams – ‘Reality Killed The Video Star’ (EMI)

It's so self-referential that a yawning hole appears where Robbie's heart should be

“Don’t call it a comeback, look what I invented here”. Yes, let’s look. How fitting that Williams made, as the showbiz fairytale script puts it, ‘his triumphant return’ on The X Factor, since he was the original ‘anyone can do this’ superstar. He was crap, but his knowing winks told audiences he knew he was crap, and allowed them in on a great old wheeze, while flatteringly suggesting stardom was in reach of the everyman. He’s since become the icon of the ‘Me’ generation, whose songs are about himself, and any fuck-ups are fed into the celebrity magazine maw and shat out as another part of his personal journey.

Cut to the present, where we find the abject ‘Rudebox’ has been assimilated into his story as a wake-up call paving the way for this new album. It’s packaged well as a return to form. Proven unit-shifter [a]Trevor Horn[/a] is the producer (the album title references Horn’s ’80s one-hit wonder with [a]Buggles[/a]’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’), who gives the album one main plot, ‘The Return Of Classic Robbie’. This means we get piano and string ballads to remind audiences of ‘Angels’ (‘Morning Sun’ is [a]Tears for Fears[/a]’ ‘Sowing the Seeds Of Love’ reimagined as ‘Sowing the Seeds Of Self-Pity’), and a sub-plot, ‘Robbie Chimes With The Sound Of Now’, in which ice-cool euphoric disco reminds audiences of [a]Lady Ga-Ga[/a]. This sub-plot is far more fun than the main, with ‘Deceptacon’ (no, not a [a]Le Tigre[/a] cover), ‘Starstruck’ and ‘Superblind’ all bringing those ‘Big Robbie Choruses’ effectively into the Balearic-Italo-Whatev template, although Williams buggers them up with hopscotch lyrics such as “Microwave yourself today, save you for a rainy day” on ‘Deceptacon’. If you want a cold, eroticised disco vibe, don’t invite Norman Wisdom.

But such faux-pas are just signs of a larger problem: There Is Nothing Here. The more you delve into it the less you find, because it’s all affectation. Listening to the ‘Robbie does doo-wop’ of ‘You Know Me’, and the ‘Robbie does AC/DC’ of ‘Do You Mind’ is like tumbling into the void. Everything is in inverted commas with Williams. Even ‘Robbie Williams’ is nothing, just a symbol of entertainment, and a mirror to reflect his audiences’ desires. Tragically, he knows it too. The terror in his eyes on The X Factor revealed a naked being with no self anymore – but the script says this is a triumphant comeback, so that must be the ‘reality’, folks.

Martin Robinson

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