There is a tendency these days, when the name Robbie Williams is mentioned, either to snigger unkindly at the irony of his rejoining Take That, now that their stock has rocketed while his has plummeted; or to tut knowingly at the apparently spectacular mismanagement of his professional life since he parted ways with the hit-song writer Guy Chambers in 2002 and yarped on about being "rich beyond his wildest dreams". If ever there was a lesson in how astounding levels of hubris tend to find a way of wiping smug grins off people's faces in the end, then Williams's is one for the every aspiring pop singer's syllabus.
There was a time, you will remember, when the cheeky blue-eyed chappie from Stoke-on-Trent could do no wrong. The hits kept on coming. And they were good; not genius-good, but certainly fresh, creative, stadium-rousing songs that were never off the airwaves. It was a relief after his acrimonious split in 1995 from the boy band that had pretty much defined the frothier side of British music in the early 1990s. Would Robbie make it on his own? Yes, he most certainly would, leaving his ex-bandmates to scrabble around in the musical hinterland with their lacklustre solo projects.
Then of course came the well-documented split with Chambers - the man with whom he had collaborated on such mega-hits as Angels, Let Me Entertain You and Rock DJ - around the time of the release of his fifth studio album Escapology. The effect wasn't immediate: his next album, Intensive Care, did relatively well, spawning the Top 10 hit, Advertising Space. But it wasn't long before things started to unravel.
The tale of Williams' rise and fall is laid out for all to hear on this two-disc compilation, which opens with his most recent work and rolls back to the heady days of Take That. You can pinpoint, towards the end of the first disc, almost the exact point when the hits stopped coming. One minute you don't recognise it; the next minute you do. That's not to say that none of the newer stuff is good: Bodies from 2009's Reality Killed the Video Star is a loud, proud return to form, and Rudebox, his 2007 dance/electro album was, although not to everyone's taste, at least experimental. It's just that none of them packs the same melodic punch as his previous work - basically, the contents of disc two. There are, though, two new hits: Shame, a bouncy reconciliatory duet with Gary Barlow, which is far closer to Take That's new sound than Robbie's; and the forgettable Heart and I.
Patchy it may be, but seen as a whole, it is Williams' remarkable versatility that stands out. He has tried everything from ballads and rock to rap and dance with, for the best part, far better results than many of his contemporaries. The timing is interesting, though: Take That's new album, Progress - their first with Williams back in the fold - is out next month, making this feel very much like a line under his solo career.