Reviewing Robbie Williams’ new CD Reality Killed the Video Star made me feel a) a bit guilty that I couldn’t give it an unmitigated rave even though I am a huge fan, and b) nostalgic for his earlier brilliance. Since 2009 is almost over, I can just get in under the wire to pay homage to the 10-year anniversary of our first taste of Robbie on these shores: The Ego Has Landed.
A decade ago, Williams was just another boy band refugee gone solo. Take That was a bona fide phenomenon in its native UK and almost every other pop-loving country in the world, but the US never cottoned to ‘em—a fate largely shared by Williams himself to this day. It was difficult to shake the prefab pretty-boy stigma, and some might say he never has—Noel Gallagher still gets mileage from a quote from 2000 when he called Williams “the fat dancer from Take That”. Credibility has been hard to come by, regardless of the dizzying success Williams has experienced worldwide.
So I feel it’s best to let the music speak for itself. The Ego Has Landed is actually a compilation of Williams’ first two albums, which were not released domestically, Life Thru a Lens and I’ve Been Expecting You. It came out in May 1999 and spawned his two biggest hits stateside, “Millennium” and “Angels” (the latter sparking a slew of cover versions by artists including Jessica Simpson and American Idol alum David Archuleta). The album got 3.5 stars and a glowing review from Rob Sheffield where he called it “easily the kickiest Elton John-style album anyone has made since George Michael’s Faith, packed with Vegas flash, disco beats, rock energy and hipster wit.” And I don’t know about you, but I think Rob Sheffield knows a thing or two about pop music.
When Robbie came along, I was listening to a steady diet of indie rock and Britpop: Elliott Smith, Belle & Sebastian, Old 97s, Rocket from the Crypt, etc. To hear this pure, superbright pop music from a bombastic showman who truly and unabashedly wanted to conquer the world was a revelation to me. But his songs had enough darkness, intelligence, and wit to win over this rock snob, just like he did Rob Sheffield, and I haven’t looked back since. Through the good and bad, drunk and sober, the desperate stabs at relevance to the old (the Rod-Stewart-ish standards album Swing When You’re Winning) and to the young (Rudebox), I keep rooting for Robbie because he made albums like The Ego Has Landed.
“Millennium” might actually be one of the weakest songs on Ego, with so many other gems like “Strong”, “Lazy Days”, “Win Some, Lose Some”, “Old Before I Die”...ah, screw it, this whole thing is amazing. Flat out, had-me-at-hello, singing-along-in-the-car-at-the-top-of-your-lungs, who-IS-this-guy? AMAZING. And I stopped using that word after Dave Navarro ruined it on that ridiculous show about looking for a new INXS singer.
To say that Robbie Williams is underrated in the States is an understatement. I have hopes that the man will keep it together long enough for people to come around to his incredible talent and unearth some of the treasure the rest of the world has already mined.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.