One never knows quite what to expect from a new Robbie Williams record.
Will it be hyper, introspective, piss taking, serious? His last album, 2006’s electro-tinged ‘Rudebox’, managed to be all four and baffled many a critic along the way. Stung by the mixed reaction to what was actually a rather fine record, Robbie promptly buggered off to LA, where he grew a beard and chased aliens for a few years. Meanwhile, his former group Take That went from one staggering success to another, seemingly stronger than ever without a Robbie-shaped albatross around their necks. Is it any wonder he kept his head down for a while?
But Robbie’s over-the-pond sojourn resulted in more than just a pronounced interest in UFOs – he found love and calmed down. The result is ‘Reality Killed The Video Star’, an album that is seemingly impossible to describe without resorting to clichés such as ‘mature’ and – oh no – middle of the road.
But despite initial appearances, ‘Reality Killed The Video Star’ does not see Robbie playing it safe. For a start, it contains precisely zero obvious singles. Sure, opening track ‘Morning Sun’ has more than a whiff of the ‘big Oasis ballad’ about it; ‘Deceptacon’ is Bowie-meets-Barlow, and ‘Bodies’ was a number two hit – not that it counts, seeing as it was propelled to number two on public goodwill and a ropey X Factor performance – but after that it’s slim pickings as far as the charts are concerned.
‘Bodies’ is something of a red herring, anyway. Yes, there are one or two more tracks containing blips and beeps (see the Pet Shop Boys-influenced ‘Last Days of Disco’ and ‘Difficult For Weirdos’) but for the most part this an album that frequently recalls the languid and pastoral sound of Tracey Thorn’s ‘Out of the Woods’, Air’s ‘Moon Safari’ or Lambchop’s ‘Nixon’. Basically, Robbie’s back from the wilderness and he’s brought a chuffing massive string section with him. It’s grown-up Britpop with shimmering production.
Barely a second passes without producer Trevor Horn draping it delicately with sweeping violins, and the overall effect is nothing short of lovely. Lyrically the record seems to be concerned with love and recovery, but in terms of arrangements ‘Reality Killed The Video Star’ would be an ideal soundtrack to a lazy afternoon in the English countryside. You just have to remember that this is a Robbie record, so the lyrics are full of confession and therapy–speak. “Bruised out of my mind on Thunderbird wine, baby I’ve been drinking,” he croons on ‘You Know Me’. “No singles, just fillers – sometimes I wish I could, but I can’t behave,” he admits on ‘Blasphemy’.
Should you be worried about the constant mid-tempo numbers and lack of pop smashes? Well no – not if you like your albums to actually sound like albums, as opposed to mish-mashes of wildly diverging genres (hi, ‘Rudebox’.)
‘Reality…’ delivers on this level, at least; with the exception of ‘Do You Mind’, which sounds like a Jet b-side, everything else forms a satisfyingly cohesive whole.
One minor criticism is that the later tracks come dangerously close to passing by in one big orchestral swoon, but you’ll be so relaxed by then you won’t even mind. Just don’t operate any heavy machinery while listening.
Upon closer inspection it’s actually a bit dull.