America has never known quite what to make of Robbie Williams, and his first release in three years probably won't change that.
Some people never got over their parents' divorce. Others never recovered from the split of Morrissey and Johnny Marr. And then there are those of us who still carry a torch, hoping against hope that someday, somehow, even after all these years... Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers will get back together. Because the simple fact is that Williams hasn't made a great album since he parted company with former songwriting partner Chambers in 2005, and Reality Killed the Video Star, his ninth studio release, is not going to change that. Produced by Trevor Horn of Buggles fame (hence the title's riff on "Video Killed the Radio Star"), the album is a solid contribution to Williams' catalogue, but doesn't achieve the peerless pop and dance genius of The Ego Has Landed (1999) or Sing When You're Winning (2000).
Williams has always struggled with the schizophrenia of being the biggest pop star in the free world at the same time he couldn't get arrested in the US. Case in point: 2005's Intensive Care went to the top of the charts across Europe, Australia, and Latin America, shortly before he entered the Guinness Book of World Records for selling the highest number of concert tickets ever sold in one day (1.6 million). Williams was enjoying his recent move to California at the time.
Intensive Care was not even released in North America.
One of the world's most successful recording artists couldn't even buy his own CD at his local Target. Rudebox, the 2006 follow-up, met a similar fate stateside (with the added insult of becoming his worst-selling album in his native UK as well).
Suffice it to say that Williams and his team haven't exactly nailed the US market. And the good news is, with Reality Killed the Video Star, it appears they have stopped trying (never mind the lyrical dig in the song "Do You Mind": "Better let me into your country though / Then I can show you what you're missing me for"). The singer's first proper North American release since 2003's Escapology, the album shows a kind of acceptance of the fact that it probably won't set the continent on fire. There is none of the desperate experimentation of Rudebox, or the identity crisis of Intensive Care (his first post-Chambers outing). Williams seems to be OK with his Adult Contemporary status these days. You'd never know he's spent the past several years in and out of rehab, posting Courtney-Love-calibre insanity on his blog, and expounding quite publicly on his experience with UFO's. The man sounds positively well-adjusted.
The song "Morning Sun" was reportedly a last-minute addition written by Williams after the death of Michael Jackson in July 2009. Not content to simply throw the track into the mix, he actually makes it the album's opener, with a reprise at the end. It's a beautiful tribute that avoids mawkishness even if it does bring the subject back to Williams himself: "And you could happen to me / 'Cause I've been close to where you are." American listeners might be baffled by such a claim if they are unfamiliar with Williams' level of fame outside their borders -- much like when he said things like "Single-handedly raising the economy / Ain't no chance of the record company dropping me" on the song "Kids" from Sing When You're Winning. That ol' Robbie ego, which he used to flaunt so egregiously with tracks like "(The World's Most) Handsome Man", is mercifully subdued here.
The first single, "Bodies", is vintage Williams, and his strongest single since "Feel" (2002). Featuring his two favorite subjects, God and sex (not necessarily in that order), it starts out conceding that "God gave me the sunshine," then admitting "All we've ever wanted was to look good naked" and ending with the conclusion that "Jesus didn't die for you / What are you on?" Possible Reason #347 that Williams is not popular with mainstream American audiences. The man may be pop through and through, but feel-good fluff this is not.
"You Know Me" has a Motown flavor reminiscent of Escapology's "Something Beautiful", and will reportedly be the next single. "Blasphemy" is the track co-written with Guy Chambers, that prompted speculation of his return to the Williams camp. But although Chambers does show solidarity and support by touting the album on his website, the song was actually written years ago, before the two parted ways in the first place. (One hint as to why it never even rated a B-side back then is the chorus: "Was it a blast for you? / 'Cause it's blasphemy".)
Other standouts include "Do You Mind", the Scissor-Sisters-esque "Last Days of Disco", and the brilliantly-titled "Difficult for Wierdos". "Deceptacon" features some of the album's strongest lyrics and reminds us of Williams' keen eye for social commentary: "And all over Britain / We wait for permission / To form another queue." Unfortunately, the song rounds out like "Love Calling Earth" redux, and not in a good way. The backing vocals, neutered bongos and smooth-jazz guitar get a little bit too Adult Contemporary, like they were borrowed from latter-day Sting sessions or a New Age day spa radio jingle (same difference). Kudos are in order, however, for the fact that "Won't Do That" is Williams' only overt love note to his girlfriend of three years, and it is only mildly nauseating ("I don't mind when the boys look at you / If I was them I'd be doin' it too").
Even if Reality Killed the Video Star doesn't break Robbie Williams in the States, there is always the hope that it will bring more exposure to his back catalogue. Even in countries where he is a sensation as a performer, there is seldom true appreciation for his incredible talent as a songwriter. Melding a God-given gift for creating pure pop music with a character so infused with darkness, self-loathing, intelligence, and fierce wit, there is truly no other artist in the world who does what Robbie Williams does. Will the detritus of his backstory -- the ego, the drugs, the girls, the successes and failures -- ever clear away enough to see all of that? As Williams asks in the song "Superblind": "And here in the next century / What will they think when they think about me?"