With the help of a new songwriting partner, Robbie Williams grounds himself and grows up a bit.
When Robbie Williams was beginning to make his one true push toward success in the United States, he released an album that compiled highlights from the two huge selling albums that he had already created in the United Kingdom. He called this compilation The Ego Has Landed. It's likely that the title was a self-deprecating nod to Williams' reputation in his native Britain as a tremendous egomaniac, a persona that Williams embraces rather than shuns, not least by the constant employ of an arched eyebrow and an ever-present smirk. Still, if we were to ask Freud (not that I hold a lot of stock in Freud, but stay with me here), he likely would have said that it was the Id, and not the Ego, that had landed -- Robbie Williams has always been one to trust instinct over reason, often tossing in a curse where something more descriptive might have worked to better effect, or spending whole songs on topics like ironic self-aggrandizement as he does on Escapology's "Handsome Man".
On Intensive Care, the Ego finally lands.
Part of this is likely due to a new choice of songwriting partner. Guy Chambers, who had been writing songs with Williams since his solo debut Life Through a Lens, is gone. Stephen Duffy of The Lilac Time is now the man behind the curtain, and the version of Robbie Williams that he embraces is one that shows a bit more restraint than the Robbie of old while still retaining the tendency toward big sounds and big statements. The silliness is muted, the musicality (via excellent instrumentation and production) is emphasized, and we end up with something that actually sounds like a real, honest to God album rather than a collection of songs.
This may not be evident from the start. The first, much publicized lines that Williams sings almost immediately at the outset of Intensive Care are "Here I stand victorious / The only man that made you come," and most anyone could be forgiven a roll of the eyes and a knee-jerk dismissal of the rest of the album. To be sure, Robbie Williams' muse is still Robbie Williams. As opening track "Ghosts" progresses, however, a settling takes place, and the song ends up turning into David Bowie through a foggy U2 filter, which is somehow a good thing. The slow build is wonderful, and the mood is one of regret for the past rather than pompous examination of the present. "Look at the time it's taken me / To get away from what was said," says Williams, simultaneously offering a plea for mercy from a singular antagonist and hinting toward the hurt that has been caused him via a merciless press corps.
These moments of openness and humility occur throughout Intensive Care, though they're often said with a hint of swallowed bitterness, as if our Robbie knows he's throwing us a bone here. "Tell a joke / Tell it twice / If no one else is laughing / Then why am I?," he asks toward the beginning of the country ballad (complete with gospel choir) "Make Me Pure", offering the possibility that perhaps he brings the criticism on himself. Still, in the same song, he outlines his own reluctance to change in the simple refrain of "Oh Lord / Make me pure / But not yet." It's this conflict, this sense of aging and a growing maturity against the wishes of the omnipresent, forever-young-in-his-own-mind narrator, that allows Intensive Care to remain fascinating on repeated listens.
Musically, the album takes on most of Williams' typical jack of all trades tendencies, careening from arena rock to country to synth-pop to ska-tinged Latin over the course of the album. Williams' songs tend to be strongest when he's being safest musically -- mid-tempo rockers like "Random Acts of Kindness" and "Spread Your Wings" sound as though Williams was born to sing them, while slower material like "Make Me Pure" and particularly the exquisite "Advertising Space" will get lighters in the air all over the world. "Advertising Space" is particularly beautiful, serving as the first worthy successor to "Angels", the classic ballad from Williams' debut. Less successful are the jaunts into oddness, as first single "Tripping" never quite sounds as fun as it's trying to be, and the synth inflected jam "Sin Sin Sin" starts delectably sinister, but loses its pulse with the coming of a cheesy chorus that tries for anthem but finds the elevator instead.
Hiccups aside, Intensive Care is the first album in a while on which the whole thing gives the impression that even when he misses, Robbie Williams is at least trying. "A hand through the clouds / Keeps knocking me down / It's no less than I deserve," he says on the ethereal album closer "King of Bloke and Bird", once again displaying that confounding mix of humility and conceit (indeed, no less than God himself is knocking him down) that make the album so fascinating. It's not clear that Williams was going into Intensive Care hoping to come up with a coming of middle-age album, but that's what we get. The Ego has landed -- Robbie's growing up.