Heralded by the graceless title-track single, with its ghastly white-boy rapping ("Sing a song of Semtex/ Pocketful of Durex/ Party full of Mandrax/ Are we gonna have sex?"), Rudebox is Robbie Williams's putative dance album, at once a tribute to the electropop soundtrack of his youth and - in tracks like "Burslem Normals", "The Eighties" and "The Nineties" - a reflection on his life since. In general, it's best when the Pet Shop Boys are involved and worst when Robbie raps: even less appealing than "Rudebox" itself is "Keep On", a nonsense babble-rap of vocal bric-a-brac that incorporates a namecheck of the Wu-Tang Clan, doubtless to their eternal chagrin.
Most of the CD falls between these poles, with spartan techno grooves beneath tracks like "Never Touch That Switch", "Kiss Me" and a cover of Lewis Taylor's "Lovelight". The album is top-heavy with smug celebrity self-referentiality - not just from Williams, but from his showbiz chums too: having the Pet Shop Boys produce and sing on a cover of My Robot Friend's "We're the Pet Shop Boys" must have seemed a terrific wheeze in the studio, but their further collaboration on "She's Madonna" rather gives the lie to its pay-off line "She's Madonna/ No man on earth could say that he don't wanna". Both tracks, however, have a sleek appeal absent from the rest of the album.
There are moments of respite from the overall brittle, synthetic sheen. "Good Doctor", in which Robbie appears to blame his doctor for encouraging his drug habits, has a rumbustious Jamaican R&B flavour, while the agnostic anthem "Viva Life On Mars" employs an engaging blend of blues guitar, harmonica, banjo and hip-house groove. Less agreeable is his cover of Manu Chao's "Bongo Bong/ Je Ne T'Aime Plus", a limp slice of cod-reggae pop-soul.
The album is, in musical terms, probably his most intriguing, but its biggest stumbling-block is Williams's lyrical pretensions. It's one thing to reiterate the Pet Shop Boys' reference to Yevtushenko's To the Finland Station, and another thing entirely to imagine one might usher a glimpse of insight into "The Eighties" through a collage of apparently random pop-culture references and biographical details. "Things are better when they start," he decides: "That's how the Eighties broke my heart." Things are certainly better than in "The Nineties", which means a recounting of the Take That story stuffed with self-justification and bruising insults aimed at his former bandmates. As the hidden track "Dickhead" suggests, bad-mouthing may turn out to be his most natural talent.
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