Once a chart-topping rocker, Robbie Williams returns after a three-year hiatus with his flawed but occasionally sparkling new solo album, writes Nick Levine.
Take the Crown is an imperfect comeback for Robbie Williams
If a young singer just starting out named his album Take the Crown, it would seem presumptuous. But from Robbie Williams, this is a pertinent choice, because for a long time he held that coveted coronet.
In 1995, when he left Britain's biggest pop group, Williams was written off by just about everyone. He was the popular rebel in Take That, but not the group's songwriter or lead singer. There were rumours of drug abuse, which Williams himself later confirmed, and he seemed more interested in partying than the pop charts.
But over the next decade, Robbie Williams established himself as one of the biggest solo stars around. He never cracked America, but became a platinum-selling artist nearly everywhere else. Williams was a natural showman, a compelling mix of ego and vulnerability. He wrote some of the defining pop songs of the times with his songwriting partner Guy Chambers. In 2005, his signature ballad Angels was voted the best British single of the past 25 years, beating hits by Kate Bush, Elton John and George Michael.
In November 2005, Williams broke a world record by selling 1.6 million concert tickets in a single day. Yet just 12 months later, he was facing up to his first flop record. Of course, flop is a relative term here. His 2006 LP Rudebox, a riskier collection of dance-influenced songs, was still one of the year's top 20 sellers in the United Kingdom, but it failed to match the success of his previous efforts. Two years later, it was reported that Williams' record label had shipped a million unsold Rudebox CDs to China to be recycled and used in road resurfacing.
When his crown slipped, Williams considered quitting the music business. "I didn't really care about my career in 2006," he recalled recently. "I just felt incredibly lethargic and like I couldn't live up to the requirements of being a pop star."
He eventually returned in 2009 with a new album called Reality Killed the Video Star. Its title was a classic example of Robbie Williams wordplay, and many critics hailed it as a comeback, but Williams has since dismissed the record. This September, he told the BBC that he chose not to tour that year because he "wasn't into [the album] that much".
Williams' salvation came when he decided to return to his musical roots, taking what he calls a "busman's holiday". In a cruel twist of fate, while his career was on the wane, the rest of Take That had reunited without him and staged a remarkable comeback. Their 2008 album The Circus went seven times platinum in the UK - the level of success Williams had got used to before Rudebox flopped.
At the height of his solo career, Williams wasn't always complimentary about Take That. He had a notoriously fraught relationship with one band member, Gary Barlow, who had been the group's musical driving force, much to Williams' frustration. But in 2010, past grievances were set aside and Williams rejoined Take That for a successful new album. A spin-off tour followed in 2011, selling 1.8 million tickets across Europe.
Touring with his old band mates proved to be the boost that Williams needed. During each show, he got to perform a 30-minute solo set featuring a selection of his own hits. "Going out there every night, just me for that little bit of time, and seeing the reaction of the crowd, that gave me the confidence to do the solo stuff now," he said recently.
At this point, feeling re-energised, Robbie Williams could have chosen to write a new solo album with anyone he wanted. Ever the maverick, he plumped for a virtually unknown Australian duo called The Undercolours, an act he discovered through his brother-in-law. He flew them to his LA home, and in just eight days the bulk of a new album had been written. The Undercolours are university students who still live with their parents, and Williams says he responded to their "fortuitous blend of youth, naivete and hope".
Sniffing a hit, Williams brought in producer Jacknife Lee to give his new album a stadium-sized sound. And to write the catchy lead single, Candy, he teamed up with his Take That bandmate Gary Barlow. Rather sweetly, Williams now describes his former nemesis as the "older brother I'm looking for approval from".
Today, with the album about to come out, Robbie Williams is clearly thinking big. In a recent interview the singer declared: "I want to dominate the charts. I want to take on the world. I want to be a top pop star … it's called Take the Crown for that reason."
As ever, it's hard not to admire his audacity. Williams opens the album with a swaggering Killers-style anthem called Be a Boy, whose lyrics read like a statement of intent. "They said it was leaving me, the magic was leaving me, I don't think so," he sings on the chorus. Later in the song, just in case there are lingering doubts, Williams adds: "I can make this last forever."
He maintains this confidence on many of the songs that follow. All That I Want sees Williams play the Lothario over a grinding disco-rock backing. Not Like the Others is a stomper that recalls the Britpop sound of the 1990s. And on a song called Gospel, Williams raises a glass to those "who always wish me well" - before advising those who haven't to do something unprintable.
However, he's not all bluster and bravado here. Different is the grandest-sounding song on the album, but the lyrics are laced with self-doubt. "This time I'll be better I want you to know, this time I'll be special, oh God make it so," goes the chorus. Is he singing to a girlfriend he's let down in the past, or is this a message to his fans?
The album ends with Losers, a song about self-acceptance which Williams records as a duet with folk singer Lissie. "I don't care about being a winner, or being smooth with women, or going out on Fridays, or being the life of parties," he sings here. It's hardly the first time that a pop star has renounced his frivolous past, but the execution is affecting nonetheless.
Take the Crown is nowhere near a perfect album. By now, Williams should have outgrown writing throwaway songs like Hey Wow Yeah Yeah, which sounds like a Pink cast-off. At other times, his voice sounds a bit ragged, perhaps a by-product of years spent chain-smoking. And though he's older and wiser, Williams remains a frustrating lyricist.
He's capable of being poignant and witty, but sometimes seems to pair words together just because they sound good. Candy, a song about a spoilt rich girl, features this verse of pure nonsense: "Ring a ring of roses, whoever gets the closest, she comes and she goes, as the war of the roses."
Then again, there's something reassuring about these flaws. The appeal of Robbie Williams never lay in perfection, even at his peak. In a way, it's the little mishaps on this generally very good album that make it feel like a genuine comeback.
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.