Music

Robbie Williams: Escapology

Jason Damas

Robbie Williams

Escapology

Label: Virgin
US Release Date: 2003-04-01
UK Release Date: 2002-11-18
Amazon
iTunes

Robbie Williams is one of the most obnoxious entertainers on earth. He's got it all figured out -- he knows he's found the "secret" to making pop music, he's figured out how to be a superstar while selling to pop and rock fans at the same time. His CDs sell boatloads across the world. Escapology is no different; it rocketed to #1 upon its release in the UK last fall. But Robbie hasn't figured out one thing: why the United States doesn't love him as much as he loves himself.

Robbie Williams has become a superstar in part because of his ability to blur the lines between genres. He began life as a pop star who switched to rock, he's infused his music with a sense of self-deprecating humor and wit, and he's released a string of records and singles that don't beg easy classification. Sure, it's pop/rock, but Robbie's style doesn't fit in with the rigid formats (particularly rigid radio formats) that we here in the States have become used to. Is he a pop star, or a rock star, or even an alternative rocker? No one in the United States seems to have a damn clue. His audience to this point has been split between the AAA crowd that liked his Ego Has Landed album and its two US top 40 hits and a bunch of anglophiles who more or less seem to get what Robbie is doing.

So now Robbie is back with his fourth album of new material (and his fifth overall) Escapology, which was released almost six months ago in the UK. He's switched from Capitol to Virgin because he was unhappy with how Capitol was marketing his records stateside, and Escapology is arriving on US shores with both a massive promotional campaign and an extremely low list price (the disc retails at many discounters for as low as $5.99). And like his "debut" US album The Ego Has Landed, which really just culled the more midtempo, less British material from his first two UK releases, Escapology features a different running order and track selection than its UK counterpart, inevitably to help American listeners discern just who Robbie is. The problem is that this version also does a great job of wiping his personality away.

Granted, Escapology -- in either its US or UK versions -- is probably the weakest Robbie Williams album to date. While he does a fine job of moving towards a more organic sound, aligning himself more with '70s pop rock like Elton John than ever before, he and songwriting partner Guy Chambers have also come up with their blandest set of songs yet. The album is insistently midtempo and middle-of-the-road, and apart from a few lyrical flourishes offers little insight into why Robbie's longtime stateside fans thought he was such a unique talent.

But the UK version of the disc leads with the rough country rock of "How Peculiar" before it dispenses with the hits (most notably the elegant "Feel", a mega-hit in the UK and already rising the charts in the US), and towards the end of the disc Robbie tosses off a trio of rockers to keep things lively. Of these songs, two are chugging, almost punkish guitar rock (one is called "Song 3", in fact, in an obvious reference to Blur's hard-rocking "Song 2"), and the third is a fantastic slice of '70s piano boogie. That track, "Hot Fudge", is actually my favorite track on Escapology, precisely because it illustrates everything that's made Williams a difficult figure to pin down. It's a damn catchy number mocking/paying tribute to Robbie's adopted hometown of Los Angeles, and manages to incorporate all of that city's glitz into a song that weds a big, booming pop chorus with the type of piano-based tune that almost no "popular" artists attempt today.

The problem is that "Hot Fudge", along with "Song 3" and the other rocker in this set, "Cursed", have all been wiped right off the US version of the album. If Robbie wants to be a star in America (and, despite some comments last year that he was done with trying to crack the US market, you can tell that he really, really does want to), then he best not confuse American fans (and American radio formats) with such material. Instead, the US version of the album is resequenced (taking "How Peculiar" out of the lead slot and putting "Feel", the big single, in the hot seat) and features two new songs ("Get a Little High" and "One Fine Day") as well as a "reprise" version of "How Peculiar" to round out its 14 tracks. The added material is pleasant enough, and "Get a Little High" and "One Fine Day" are actually both extremely accessible, catchy adult radio fodder. Both songs deserve to be hits. But the problem is their very presence, especially in light of the cost that was paid to fit them here. By shuffling a few tracks and making these few substitutions, Escapology is rendered toothless. To most this will feel like bland, faceless adult pop/rock, and realistically this is the closest that Williams has ever come to making an album to appeal to that set. Granted, not all of the idiosyncratic material has been sliced away-the nonsensical seven-minute-long mariachi opus "Me and My Monkey" was inexplicably kept, as was the quite-good Philly soul tribute "Something Beautiful" and the self-mocking "Handsome Man" (which contains lyrics like "It's hard to be humble when you're so fuckin' big / Did you ever meet a sexier male chauvinist pig?", the exact sort of stuff that seems to confuse Americans and will certainly turn off "adult" listeners. Oh well.)

But consider this: The only Robbie Williams album to be issued in the United States in its original version, 2000's trashy masterpiece (and his best album) Sing When You're Winning was a commercial flop here, despite gaining significant (and surprising) critical accolades from the mainstream press. On that album, Robbie shifted from rock to pop to dance effortlessly, collaborating with Kylie Minogue on one song and spoofing Kid Rock on the next. It was a fantastic, original mainstream rock album -- one of the best of its time, frankly -- and it probably sunk on the charts precisely because it was too confusing to its potential audiences. It's just sad that Robbie has instead opted for the commercial and the safe, even if he still does do this music better than almost anyone, when he is clearly capable of so much more. But for now, he seems content to be the new Phil Collins.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image