Album reviews: Robbie Williams – The Christmas Present and Harry Nilsson – Losst and Founnd

On his first Christmas album, Williams fails to inspire much festive spirit with a hodgepodge of covers and original songs, while Nilsson’s posthumous record resurrects a treasured voice in songs full of vim

Roisin O'Connor,Elisa Bray
Friday 22 November 2019 10:23
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This is Robbie Williams' first Christmas album. It should probably be his last.
This is Robbie Williams' first Christmas album. It should probably be his last.

Robbie WilliamsThe Christmas Present

★★☆☆☆

Upon the announcement of Robbie Williams’ first ever Christmas album, my initial reaction was one of confusion. His first ever? Surely his cheeky-chappie, “kid who just snuck an extra chocolate out of the box” character would have inspired such an endeavour years ago? But no, this is indeed his first attempt. It should probably be his last.

The pop star, who broke away from boyband heartthrobs Take That in the mid-Nineties, has released two competent, at times very good, swing albums in between his many successful solo records. He understands the kind of bombast and slick charm required for projects such as this, and his voice is capable of belting rich, sonorous notes in a similar way to jazz musician Jamie Cullum (one of several guest features on this record, along with Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart and, erm, Tyson Fury). Here, though, Williams veers all too often from the kind of whimsy and cheese that’s acceptable at Christmastime, to a level of saccharine that actually makes your teeth hurt.

On the first of the two sides (one is mostly covers, the second originals), there’s a perfectly fine, swing band-backed version of “Merry Xmas Everybody”, and a chirpy “Winter Wonderland”. Williams’s “Let it Snow”, though, is like a half-arsed version of the aforementioned “Winter Wonderland”, while his “I Believe in Father Christmas” isn’t a patch on Greg Lake’s morose classic, so why bother? On the second disc (Christmas Future) there’s “Darkest Night”, where he sings about sex and drugs and being hounded by paparazzi, and the baffling “Merry Kissmas”, which sounds like one of Bruno Mars’s cast-offs. Not exactly traditional Christmas fare.

Original Christmas songs are essentially a no-go for most artists, and in this case, Williams would have been much better releasing a single album of covers that stuck lovingly to the classics, as he did with the swing records. If someone gives me The Christmas Present this festive season, I’ll assume I've ended up on the naughty list. Roisin O'Connor

Harry NilssonLosst and Founnd

★★★☆☆

It’s been 25 years since Harry Nilsson died, from a heart attack, midway through recording his first album in 15 years. Only now are the Grammy winner’s songs being released, by producer Mark Hudson.

On the album liner notes, Hudson addresses Nilsson: “I finally finished the record we were working on ... All of your ideas I would write down, and I have put them into this project.”

Rather than a piecemeal posthumous release aiming for riches, Losst and Founnd is a carefully crafted labour of love, allowing its star of the Seventies the chance to shine on nine original songs and two covers. The album also features Nilsson’s son Kiefo on bass, and contemporaries Jimmy Webb and Van Dyke Parks.

Losst and Founnd reflects Nilsson’s songwriting ambition and wildly varying styles, spanning baroque pop, blues (“Hi-Heel Sneakers/Rescue Boy Medley”) and middle of the road. It’s an album steeped in the sound of his most influential decade, and with the gospel choir and lush orchestration, is quite in your face for the most part. The bright title-track opener sounds straight out of a musical, its backing vocals and brass calling to mind a chorus and pit orchestra. His rococo pop tendencies continue with highlight “Woman Oh Woman”, while “Animal Farm” recalls the light-hearted pop of Ringo Starr.

It’s towards the end with the hammy French-infused “Love is the Answer”, complete with accordion, that the energetic pace lets up. While the album’s melodramatic finale – Jimmy Webb’s “What Does a Woman See in a Man” – is beautifully delivered, showcasing the expressive richness of Nilsson’s voice mingling with strings and piano, it’s a curious addition. The lyrics are likely to sound woefully dated even to those who were fans of the singer in his heyday.

Nilsson was The Beatles’ favourite singer, and references to the Fab Four are all over this album. “Try” sounds uncannily like “Love is All You Need”, “UCLA” has a guitar flourish mirroring that of “Something”, while “Listen, the Snow is Falling” is a Yoko Ono cover.

There may be none of the heart-tugging vibe of octave-spanning “Without You”, or the abundant melody of “Everybody’s Talkin’”, but Losst and Founnd resurrects a treasured voice in songs full of vim. Elisa Bray

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