It’s a bit of a strange experience writing about Robbie Williams’ seventh album, Rudebox now, some four months after it was released to deafening howls of critical derision and public indifference. It seems like anyone that has even a passing interest in Britain’s Greatest Entertainer™ has already made their mind up about the record, and duly written it off as a disastrous experiment in garish electro-pop and awkward, unconvincing hip-hop. Indeed, so overwhelming was the negative noise that greeted the album, it has obscured the fact that Rudebox, far from an epic failure, is by an absolute country mile, the best thing Robbie Williams has done since he sauced up Lulu on Take That’s “Relight My Fire”. That is not to say it’s a great album –- it’s at least five tracks too long, and some of the musical ideas Williams gleefully pilfers come across as nothing more that half-baked tributes to superior originals. However, listening to Rudebox, you get the impression that for the first time in his career, Robbie actually gives a shit about the music he’s making.
Previously Robbie Williams’ music has been the least interesting thing about him. That might sound a little harsh when you consider that, with former writing partner Guy Chambers, the man is responsible for at least a dozen Britpoppy anthems that have found their way into peoples hearts in a way most singers could only dream of. Just try stopping someone in the street between the age of 20 and 40 anywhere in Britain and asking them the words to “Angels”—you could bet your life they would swoon and croon the whole thing through. No, he may have had the hits, but the fascination with Robbie has always been the conflict of the man driven to take to the stage, play the clown, and entertain us at all costs, who outside of the spotlight has cut the figure of a desperately sad bloke, addicted to the all of the things that make any sort of normal life impossible for him.
Certainly musically, Robbie has never come even close to making a consistently decent album. His last two records in particular were packed full of the strangely anonymous session musician MOR rock that always seemed custom built to crack America, and always failed miserably. Rudebox on the other hand, desperately patchy though it is, at least has a vigour and life to it that goes some way to doing justice to Williams’ larger-than-life personality. Certainly, you suspect that the electro-pop and glaring rude-boy hip-hop (think MC Hammer rather than Public Enemy) to be found on Rudebox is far closer to the music Williams grew up with, and actually listens to, than the turgid FM rock of his previous albums—and even when he’s spending too much time clowning around, spinning tacky raps about the special Olympics and spaceships—at least he sounds like himself.
The title track and first single is probably the curveball that killed the albums commercial prospects stone dead—and even now, removed of its shock value, it’s a bloody odd song. A re-jigged cover of a Sly and Robbie track, it’s built around the kind of bleeping, ‘80s gameboy synths that would probably be praised as cutting edge if they came from an American artist rather than a class clown from Stoke on Trent. And perhaps I’m just easily amused but the lyrics—dumb, crass and nonsensical though they are—are actually pretty funny. His affected, jokey street slang and references to TK Max sound like the babblings of someone who has stopped giving a toss about any notions of musical credibility and is revelling in the absurdities of throwaway pop music at its most ridiculous.
Trawling through the rest of Rudebox, you’ll come across gonzo country (“Viva Life on Mars”), brooding, slightly demented synth pop (“The Actor”) and swinging narcotic rap funk (“Good Doctor”). It’s the musical equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder but crucially, Robbie Williams isn’t really an artist who has to make a coherent, steady album—he’s a born entertainer, a fantastic pop star making mostly brilliant, fun pop music.
“We’re the Pet Shop Boys” is a cover of a My Robot Friend song featuring the actual Pet Shop Boys on vocals, and as a kitsch ‘80s tribute, somewhat bizarrely, it works. “Lovelight” also, may be another cover but it is still a brilliantly produced (by Mark Ronson) neon-lit ballad that recalls Prince at his most throwaway, surely never a bad thing. Even the reworking of the Human League, “Louise” is a surprisingly understated and heartfelt croon made more affecting by the fact it never once threatens to drift into widescreen epic ballad territory.
What lifts Rudebox above just being a funny, deliriously schizophrenic pop album though is the presence of two remarkable songs, “The 80’s” and “The 90’s”. Such is the shadow they cast over just about everything else Robbie Williams has ever done, it’s almost embarrassing. Inseparable in the running order, it’s impossible not to imagine these barbed, bruised and tender poems to misspent youth not being celebrated were they written by anybody else other than the eternally uncool Williams. “The 80’s” is flecked with the earliest memories of teenage years spent drinking Newcy Brown and fumbling around with girls down the park, that would strike a chord with anyone even vaguely familiar with an English working class upbringing. Better still is the “The 90’s” with its picture of a lost kid, shot to immense fame who’s now “running away from everything that I’ve ever been… pissed and fucked and only 19”. Maybe after all this time, beneath all the smirking and winking and empty whinging, Robbie’s had something to say after all… who’d have thought it.
Given the critical reaction to Rudebox already, there isn’t much point in dwelling dwell on the songs here that don’t work -– “Bongo Bong and Je Ne T’aime Plus” which is so badly conceived and executed that even Lily Allen’s presence can’t save it. Likewise closing couple of tracks “Summertime” and “Dickhead” are best forgotten, the latter being a fucking insane, pissed up rap that should never have made available for public consumption in a million years (to be honest I could only manage to sit through to about two minutes of it but it wasn’t pretty).
Despite these misfirings, Rudebox is an astounding, brave release from one of the worlds most high profile pop stars. It has already alienated much of his Heat reading fanbase and the folks that only buy two albums a year from Tesco will for the first time not be tempted by a Robbie Williams album. No record company in their right mind will surely allow a star of Robbie Williams’ stature and size to deliver something like Rudebox for a very long time. Which is a shame, because the record displays an edge and a wicked sense of fun sorely missing from most mainstream pop. Whether it’s a one off or not, with Rudebox, Robbie Williams seems to have lost a sizable portion of his audience in return for finding his musical voice. Rudebox is a flawed, stupid, incoherent mess of an album, but like the very best pop music, it isn’t half fun.