Music

Robbie Williams: Take the Crown

After years (and years) of coasting, it seems that Robbie Williams had run his course as the biggest pop star in the world (sans America). Energized by a reunion with Take That, he sounds positively recharged, and Take the Crown is hands down his best album in nearly a decade. Easy.


Robbie Williams

Take the Crown

Label: Island
US Release Date: 2012-11-13
UK Release Date: 2012-11-05
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Robbie Williams may not be the most humble man in the world, but boy does he know he's been beaten.

Following his acrimonious departure from the U.K.'s ultimate '90s boy band Take That, it didn't take long for Robbie Williams to establish himself as Europe's definitive pop star: smarmy, funny and charming all at once. He started piling on solo hits with ease, backing up his surprisingly average voice with a stadium-sized personality, charting everywhere in the world except for America, which was given one last big push in 2002 with his hum-ho effort Escapology and its lead single, "Feel". After that album, however, Williams' go-to collaborator, Guy Chambers, went on to work with other acts, and Williams began branching out his musical horizons, which -- while desperately needed just for the sake of diversity -- soon led to a series of tunes wherein he alternated between two major tones: sleazy (as on "Rudebox") and overly schmaltzy (like with "You Know Me"). The albums sold well -- they always did -- but there was a perceptible dropoff in the quality in Williams' work, having gone from Europe's defining pop idol to "just" a really well-known pop singer. His albums were no longer pop culture events: just products that he was promoting, and by the time 2009's Reality Killed the Video Star came out, Williams started to appear as a worn-out, hackneyed version of himself, a shadow of the star he used to be.

During this time, Take That's Gary Barlow -- a credible pop songwriter in his own right -- decided to round the guys up and give that whole boy band thing another ago. By adding in a lot more maturity to the quartet's sound while keeping the chemistry very much the same, Take That, against all odds, didn't just start making hits again: they became bigger than they ever had before. Their hotly anticipated 2006 comeback album, Beauitful World, was a gigantic success (even outselling Williams' work at the time), and they even managed to repeat the feat with 2008's even better-received The Circus. Barlow had proven himself to be a consistent hit machine -- saccharine as his tunes may be -- and it didn't take long for Williams to see the light. In late 2010, Progress was released: the first album in a long time to feature all five original members back together, Williams taking lead on no less than seven of the album's tracks, the whole thing proving to be not only a commercial success (and one of the fastest-selling albums in U.K. history), but also an experience that creatively re-energized Williams in a way that he seemingly hadn't felt in years. Williams even admitted as much in interviews, and after Barlow & Williams worked on "Shame" -- the highly successful leadoff track from Williams' second greatest compilation -- it wasn't long before Robbie Williams started his comeback plan with Barlow in tow. He realized that for years he had just been releasing pop albums, when what he needed to do was release a "big" pop album (just like in the old days), a disc that reached out far beyond his fanbase and back to the stratospheric heights he once knew.

Thankfully for Williams, Take the Crown does exactly that.

By bringing in Barlow for two songs and getting exuberant producer Jacknife Lee to man the boards (who's worked with everyone from Snow Patrol to R.E.M. To Taylor Swift to U2), Williams has ditched the blacklights that fuel our current day's Eurodisco festishization in favor of some good ol' fashioned pop and rock anthems. Opening stunner "Be a Boy" features the chant-along vocals that the Killers completely forgot to include in their last album, and while the song has a broad, calculated feel to it, by goodness does Williams pull it off. Lee's production through Crown is pitch perfect: big enough to fill Wembley but careful enough that it never fully tips over into unsustainable pomposity ('cos the last thing Williams needs is his own "November Rain"). The moods change and shift but rarely has Williams sounded this accessible or (most importantly) relatable.

That relatability factor is the big key here. On Crown, Williams isn't expressing the more generic sentiments that dominated his last few efforts, but instead revealing a lot with vulnerability and reflection -- something that we haven't heard out of him for years. Just take the chorus to the excellent mid-tempo rocker "Gospel":

I am 16 and I love you and I'm standing on your step

I took a photograph in my mind but I don't know where it's kept

I'm embarrassing and limited with thoughts I have repressed

But I'm 16 and I love you and I have a lot to give

It's a pretty wonderful sentiment, and it's so well executed you almost completely gloss over the fact that the final lyrics of the song is Williams telling his nay-sayers to "go fuck yourself" (sung with gloriously reverb-drenched bravado). Two songs in and the classic, sardonic Williams of old is back and in full force.

In fact, it could even be argued that Take the Crown's Side A is the single most consistent run of songs Williams has had in a decade. "Candy" serves as a great introduction to Crown's panaromaic pop ambitions (even if the chorus does get a little bit lost in its own grab bag of metaphors), the positively Springsteen-esque "Shit on the Radio" is another arena-rocking single waiting in the wings that will fool casual observers into thinking it's actually about the music industry (it's not), and the big mid-tempo ballad "Different" (a Barlow co-write, naturally) plays right into Williams' wheelhouse, the dominant string sections helping lift up an alright song into something grander, proving that sometimes the right production can make or break a song regardless of quality, Lee proving to be Williams' best sonic foil since Chambers by far.

Once "Shit on the Radio" ends, however, the album doesn't necessarily take a turn for the worse as much as it starts trotting out sounds and tropes that we've already heard on the disc's first half. "Hurting for You" starts coping some of the Killers-esque '80s sheen (again), "Into the Silence" is a surprisingly tepid attempt at writing a U2 song, and the closing Lissie duet "Losers" ends the album on a rather bland, disappointing note, those lonesome acoustic strums spending too much time waiting for the next note to come, the track obviously going for poignant but ending up squarely on boredom. The goofy, brainless rock rush of "Hey Wow Yeah Yeah" thankfully breaks up the monotony by cranking up the distorted vocals and saying absolutely nothing of substance for its entire 172 second runtime, serving as a surprisingly effective palette cleanser. (Side note: shame the pretty good ballad "Reverse" is relegated to the album's Deluxe Edition, as the only other track it's coupled with is an amazingly pointless re-do of the Take That Progress tear-jerker "Eight Letters".)

Yet even with that less-consistent Side B in mind, there's still no denying that Take the Crown remains the most wildly entertaining album Robbie Williams has released in years, unabashedly broad in appeal but immaculately well-crafted, at times even rivaling Williams' best work. When you break it all down and step back from the album as a whole, you realize that this disc's title could not be more fitting: the throne has always been yours, Robbie. After years (and years) of coasting, all you had to do was want it back -- and with Take the Crown, you finally did.

7
Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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