Robbie Williams is a unique musical artist – not restricting himself to the rules and expectations of modern day celebritydom. His brutal honesty – both in his personal life and his music – are perhaps one of the reasons that he’s never cracked the USA. He’s also followed an unconventionally successful musical course that others attempt but usually fail – from boyband member to respected and successful songwriter and performer.
With global album sales at over 35 million and number one hits all over the world, he has also earned critical kudos, boasting 15 Brit Awards (a record), three Ivor Novellos, a Q Magazine Classic Songwriting Award and all manner of worldwide MTV gongs. And he’s just released a new studio album, titled Intensive Care.
31 year old Robbie’s journey into the spotlight began in amateur musical productions with his mother, which led to an audition (at his mother’s urging) for a position in a boyband called Take That. He got the spot and was soon a pretty boy adorning British teenage girls’ (and many boys’) bedroom walls. In 1995 he quit the band, marking the fact with a hit cover of George Michael’s Freedom.
Few expected much to come from a solo career, but he surprised critics by working with writing partner Guy Chambers on increasingly memorable songs. Weak-sounding vocals on Freedom, evolved into increasingly more confident singing on other later tracks. Hit singles and albums, and mega-record contracts followed, but it was his 2002 filmed performance – Live at the Albert – in which he crooned classic swing numbers, made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra, that he finally revealed his impressive vocal skills and on-stage persona. It’s one of the finest live performances put down on film: No one would ever again claim that Robbie made it because of his looks or that he couldn’t sing.
But while Robbie’s musical growth has been the stuff of Hollywood dreams, his personal life has proven to be much more complex and dark. He’s had numerous battles with alcohol and drugs, with the obligatory bouts of time in rehab.
There’ve been no consistent long term partners for Robbie, and while he’s only been known to date women, he has himself not ruled out the possibility that a man could steal his heart. He’s undoubtedly sexy; in a way that few male musical figures are today – a little rough around edges, sensitive but tough, loud but self-aware, and smartly self-effacing.
Intensive Care, Robbie’s eighth album, was co-written with Stephen Duffy (the 1980’s micro pop star) and recorded in his Hollywood bedroom over two years. The duo experimented with all kinds of sounds inspired by bands like Gang Of Four, Bloc Party and Kraftwerk.
Robbie continues to flirt with sexual ambiguity. When Scissor Sisters singer Jake Shears talked about closeted stars in an interview, he mentioned Robbie. “Robbie Williams is a gay man. Just look at him.” With great style and aplomb, when colleting an award soon after, he paid tribute to, “my boyfriend, Jake, from the Scissor Sisters”. In the song Your Gay Friend, he sings, “I’ll be your gay friend/Cos your marriage never ends/so we fuck and fight again…” It’s unclear who he’s writing about and he himself says “the less said about that the better”.
The CD also expands on the ongoing introspection and personal revelation of his recent music. He sings about relationships, lovers and his inadequacies and fears. It’s personal stuff, not couched in metaphor; one of the most appealing aspects of his work.
An example is the song The Trouble With Me: “You see the trouble with me/I’ve got a head full of fuck/I’m a basket case/I don’t think I can love”.
Or take the track Make Me Pure. “Oh Lord make me pure but not yet / I stopped praying so I hope this song will do / I wrote it all for you / I’m not perfect, but you don’t mind that, do you? / I know you’re there to pull me through / Aren’t you?
It is, he explains, “…about turning 30 and realising that there is still a big void in my life. And that’s a woman, a partner, a wife.” It’s described as being written from the perspective of “a 31 year-old man off the drink and drugs but wanting, nevertheless, to push the barriers of his newly-found sobriety”.
The result is an album that is not an obvious pop success and needs time to settle into. It’s a fairly downbeat affair – filled with melancholy and introspection – with an emphasis on strong lyrics supported by largely conservative production.
“Lyrically, this is the best album I’ve written”, Robbie says, “Although I do say that before every album comes out. But I think I mean it this time.” Not all the songs are necessarily about himself; sometimes through the eyes of other people. The music is often reminiscent of an 80s and 90s British Indie-pop sound with the odd smattering of 70s rock n’ roll.
“When I think about school and hear some of the songs from the 80s, it breaks my heart, it really does,” he says. “I wanted to write the kind of songs that could break somebody else’s heart in 15, 20 years, and give them the same sense of nostalgia as my favourite songs gave me.” It’s a kind of nostalgia – for the past, the present and hoped for future – that permeates the album.
Intensive Care is not a milestone work, but it’s a solid and strong offering by an artist that continues to evolve, transform and surprise. And thus far it’s been an inspiring and rewarding journey to watch. Stay tuned.