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.