“Light entertainment, but on steroids” is how Robbie Williams conceived his 11th solo album, a record that reunites the singer with writer Guy Chambers, co-author of umpteen smash hits from the Robbie back catalogue, on a new label.
Chambers returned for 2013’s Swings Both Ways, but that was all dicky bows and pomade. This is supposed to be a pop event – a sort of Lady Gaga reunites with RedOne situation – in which Williams redeploys the particular combination of cheek, imperiousness and schmaltz that saw him boss the late 90s and early 00s.
That’s probably not how Heavy Entertainment will play out, exactly. It’s hard to pinpoint where this album fits in the shifting-sand ecology of contemporary pop. Perhaps wisely, Williams opts out of current sounds such as glacial R&B and big-drop dancefloor digitals, borrowing, magpie-like, from glam rock and 80s funk. If Mixed Signals – all 80s soft rock via 00s synths – sounds like the Killers, that’s because Williams hired them to write it. Strangely enough, he wears this windswept stuff surprisingly well. His old pal Rufus Wainwright helps out on Hotel Crazy, a lyrics-heavy vamp that sounds like it should have a West End musical written around it.
Millennial-targeting chart fodder isn’t Williams’s prime concern, anyway. Pretty Woman – a roots gone pop collaboration with Ed Sheeran and producer Benny Blanco – and Sensitive – a forgettable Stuart Price funk-pop bagatelle – are the closest Williams comes to courting the pop crowd. More to the point, the first single from Heavy Entertainment, the oligarch-mocking Party Like a Russian, generated far more commentary than roubles, failing to chart particularly high (No 23). By contrast, 2012’s Candy, Williams’s last reintroductory salvo, topped the singles.
Whatever you think of Party Like a Russian – allegedly, it was dreamed up in the aftermath of a Roman Abramovich-funded private gig – few other artists would attempt such camp, bombastic ridiculousness, and today’s charts are, perhaps, all the more anodyne for that absence of chutzpah. You couldn’t imagine too many celebs singing a song called Motherfucker, either, in which the mental ill health of the forebears is visited upon a young son in tabloid-baiting form. “Your uncle sells drugs,” it goes, “Your cousin is a cutter/Your grandma is a fluffer/ Your grandad’s in the gutter…” In its gleeful refusal to provide reassurance to young Charlton Williams, aged two, it is, perhaps, one of the least nausea-inducing songs ever dedicated to a celebrity offspring.
The tunes that could only come from Williams make this record entertaining if a little groan-worthy. The could-be-anybody songs just don’t stick in the memory. The album’s introductory title track is, of course, pure Robbie – another operatic, circussy blare full of his particular brand of self-deprecating preening. “I am notorious for making all the crowd sing the chor-i-us,” he smirks. “I just made up that word!” If ever something was needed to reconfirm his pop star status, here it is: you still want to biff him.
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