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 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.