The Ugly: Robbie Williams, "Rudebox".
In late 2003, there were some weird stories swirling around concerning Robbie Williams. I read that he wasn't handling his Knebworth comedown very well. In one interview, he claimed he was retiring. Elsewhere, he began speaking about altering his persona to that of a freakier, more zonked out character named Pure Francis, whose music would dabble in strange forms of electronic squiggliness.
After devouring Chris Heath's "Feel" earlier this year, I discovered the real truth. He did retire, but his retirement ended as soon as the interview ended, i.e. he meant it only during the literal moment that he said it. Hey, we all get pissy sometimes. The Pure Francis character wasn't a reaction to the comedown from Knebworth, but rather, a way to avoid the pressures of it. Messing about in Stephen Duffy's cramped studio proved to be a welcome distraction from rehearsal and the general realization that he was about to play the biggest gigs in UK history. It's too bad that Pure Francis never came to be, and the fruits of the Duffy collaborations (the "Intensive Care" album) were fairly indistinguishable from the music Robbie had been making for his entire career up to that point.
Along came 2006, and the re-invention finally came to pass on "Rudebox". Williams shook up his normal work routine and decided to work with a bevy of producers instead of just one. Somewhere along the way, he ditched stadium pop and decided to become a dancefloor diva.
At this point, even if you'd been closely following his career, you'd be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the prospect of Robbie going disco, chasing the electronica boom roughly ten years after Eric Clapton did. And why? For a laugh? Just because he can? Because he no longer gives a fuck? Fortunately, none of those three fears would turn out to be true, but before moving on, let's pause to examine how NOW magazine churned out, as they often do, the worst review in the universe. I hear that 1995 called and it wants its Britpop Review Spreadsheet back, because as you can clearly see from Evan Davies' writing, apparently any and all English artists are cheeky pop pranksters that are in it only for the laughs and for making delightfully naff videos. The notion that anybody might take them seriously as genuine artists who mean something to real music fans is nowhere in the vicinity of the radar.
Is it a great album? Far from it, but it's easily Williams' most inspired album to date, chiefly because he cared enough to try to craft a bonkers epic masterpiece without caring about whether he'd succeed or not. "Rudebox"'s closest recent contemporary is Smashing Pumpkins' "Adore" -- another case where the artists in question sold a zillion albums previously but still chose to release something weird and challenging in lieu of something they were certain would sell, made the album too long by about 25-30 minutes but still forced you to sit through it all because as everyone knows, becoming bored at times is essential for truly "getting" any epic piece of music; "went electronic" and succeeded far beyond expectations in four or five styles that they'd never attempted before but failed miserably with another two or three, and finally: produced some sensational piece of music but dragged down the overall product with the bad songs. Unfortunately, the latter group will likely define the album in the long run in the minds of casual (or is it cynical?) listeners.
Songs like "Dickhead" are fairly inoffensive, in that they were *clearly* done for a dumb laugh and can be easily ignored. But early in the album, the cover versions start piling up and nearly kill the record straight out of the gate. "Bongo Bong and Je Ne T'Aime Plus" is brutal (and a terrible song to boot), "Kiss Me" is fun but is a karaoke experiment that never needed to see the light of day, and "We're the Pet Shop Boys" (featuring the Pet Shop Boys) seems to last forever and is far too concerned with preserving it's own sense of self-irony than in being an entertaining song. It's strange though, that these bad covers rub shoulders with a home run version of Human League's "Louise", coupled with the tender "Burslem Normals" which isn't a Human League cover but could easily pass for one. Adding to the contradictions is the Pet Shop Boys -- after failing miserably with their other aforementioned "Rudebox" production -- who, with their spectacular "She's Madonna", brilliantly mimick the classic funny/sad moments of their peak period singles. "Never Touch That Switch" is a highly addictive piece of warped electro-funk that has to rank #1 on the list of things you never thought could be written about a Robbie Williams song.
Best of all is the pairing of "The 80's" and "The 90's", a couple of autobiographical sketches that are delivered in a passable Mike Skinner-style rap. The lyrics are simple but touching, and the little musical touches on "The 90's" (coming off as a cross between Matchbox 20's jangly guitar pop and "Great Escape"-era Blur complete with trombone solo) are really what make the song so great.