Album: Robbie Williams, Reality Killed the Video Star (EMI)

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The Independent Culture

Robbie Williams' albums have increasingly come to focus upon the singer himself, which has consequently made them less and less appealing to those not entirely smitten with his charms.

By 2006's Rudebox, with its songs about Robbie growing up in the Eighties and growing bitter in the Nineties, this was proving counter-productive, the album being regarded as under-performing, commercially. As he observes here in the opening "Morning Sun", "a message to the troubadour: the world don't love you anymore". The song was supposedly written about Michael Jackson shortly after the singer's death, but as Williams noted during his Electric Proms comeback show, "I thought it was about [him], but it's actually about me again".

Certainly, there's no avoiding the obvious self-referentiality of the album title, which puns on producer Trevor Horn's pivotal Buggles hit "Video Killed The Radio Star" to suggest how all-singing, all-dancing video stars like Williams have been supplanted in the pop industry by the rapid turnover of ruthlessly-drilled reality-show contestants – despite their being ultimately traceable to manufactured boy-bands like, well, Take That. And it's hard to read the brief "Somewhere" as anything but an autobiographical reflection on Robbie's lengthy, lonely, lost weekend in the LA wilderness, with its rueful advice to "take your chance in life, go out and find a wife, don't get stuck in the state that I'm in".

But elsewhere on Reality Killed the Video Star, the signs are that the now-married singer has regained his waning zest. Though less experimental than Rudebox, it's more accomplished and generous-spirited. Its predecessor's Pet Shop Boys electropop stylings are restricted to a few tracks such as "Last Days Of Disco" and "Difficult For Weirdos", a reminiscence of the stubborn courage required to glam-up publicly during the New Romantic era, while elsewhere the mainstream musical influences are as tried and tested as the Elton-style plodder "You Know Me" and the Beatle-esque strings draped over "Morning Sun".

Robbie being Robbie, of course, there are a few curiosities disturbing the smooth surfaces conjured up by Horn, not least the fatalistic, twitchy techno single "Bodies", with its references to "decay and entropy" and "bodies in the cemetery" and its choir chanting "Jesus didn't die for you/me" – a line one might have expected in "Blasphemy", the last song Williams co-wrote with Guy Chambers. Here, to a chamber-pop setting of piano, oboe and strings, he trots out a few typically tactless references to senile dementia, the deaf and dumb, and the Great Depression, perhaps to justify the terrible pun "Is it a blast for you? 'Cos it's blasphemy!". Older, then, but wiser...?

Download this: Morning Sun; Bodies; Difficult For Weirdos

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