“Don’t call it a comeback,” warns Robbie Williams on Last Days Of Disco. Well, what are we supposed to call it?

After previous album Rudebox flopped (relatively speaking for a Robbie Williams album – it still sold bucketloads) in 2006, we’ve heard next to nothing from Williams. He decamped to Los Angeles – apparently for some peace and quiet in the showbiz capital of the world – and grew a beard. Later, he spoke of his belief in UFOs and aliens and confirmed what everyone had long thought – Robbie Williams had gone a bit mad.

But it seems like his burgeoning relationship with American actress Ayda Field has calmed him down. Earlier this year he moved back to the UK and even made up with long-time songwriting partner Guy Chambers, from whom he had been estranged since 2003. With Chambers back on board and Pet Shop Boys cohort Trevor Horn lined up to produce, Williams started writing music again. The result is Reality Killed The Video Star, Williams’ eighth studio album and likely to be his last for EMI.

It’s a confused sounding record, and despite Williams claiming – as all artists do – that this is his best yet and will be his legacy, it feels somewhat as if he’s going through the motions to fulfil his contractual obligations.

The album’s lead single Bodies is easily the best track present. It kicks off with a dirty bass line accompanied by some more questionable rapping, but when the chorus arrives it takes off like a rocket. A gospel choir competes with heady, aggressive strings at the close of the track following a blissful key change (there are still few musicians that do a key change better than Williams). Nothing else on the album comes close to it. Bodies brims with creative, innovative ideas that work well – the rest of the album is bereft of them.

Much of Reality Killed The Video Star suffers from a fatal overload of ballads, a condition Williams’ albums have long suffered from. It goes without saying that none of them are as affecting as Feel, She’s The One, Angels, No Regrets etc. Oddly, next single You Know Me is the worst of them, with Williams sickeningly pandering to his audience.

A forced sense of fun permeates the album. The bouncy yet somehow empty Do You Mind? is a perfect example of this. It’s typical Robbie fare, asking the permission of his listeners to ‘touch’ them, hinting that he doesn’t mind if they sell kiss-and-tell style stories on him afterwards. But it doesn’t feel natural, and at no point on Reality Killed The Video Star does he seem at all comfortable with the act. The older, more mature Robbie Williams doesn’t seem to want to be the cheeky chappy he has been throughout his career any more.

Lyrically, Williams toys with his depression, the self-doubt he has suffered from throughout his career, the aliens thing, his drug dependence, but never does it feel like he’s inviting the listener in. He’s holding them at arms length, giving out just enough of himself to appear open, while remaining as closed-off as ever.

Horn’s Pet Shop Boys credentials are understated for much of the album, but they dominate on Last Days Of Disco, Williams’ attempt at a dark, dancefloor demon of a tune. It doesn’t work. He doesn’t have the voice to carry off the lower notes, and his growl is just lost in the forgettable tune. He’s always been at his best with soaring choruses backed by joyful yet sadness-tinged melodies, but for some reason he shuns them on the album, instead going for a ‘grower’ of a sound.

It’s a risk that never pays off. Although he undoubtedly doesn’t need the money and could quite comfortably live out his life without working again, there’s a sense of pressure throughout the album that Williams never gets on top of. While he’s come a long way from being dubbed the “fat dancer out of Take That” by Noel Gallagher, he still craves appreciation and attention, and both are likely to wane further with the release of this lifeless, emotionless record.

The entire second half of the album passes by as a beige blur with no tracks standing out and Horn’s production, rather than giving each song a precise definition as you might expect, instead washes each song into the next. When Williams does attempt something different like on Difficult For Weirdos, it just doesn’t work. The song starts off like a Crystal Castles rave-mash-up type thing, but soon descends into typical sweepy-swoopy computerised fare. The brass-laden Won’t Do That is almost a defiant end to the album, but then a pointless reprise of the album’s banal opener, Morning Sun, comes along for no discernible reason.

The whole album is pedestrian with no pace to the tracks to push it along. It’s almost too average to be average. There’s possibly a half-decent six track EP in here somewhere, but even that isn’t definite. The most impressive thing about Reality Kill The Video Star is how Williams has made it out to be a step forward, a boundary-pushing leap into the unknown, when really this is exactly the sort of thing you would have expected him to come up with. It’s so polished, buffed within an inch of its very life by Horn’s heavy-handed production, that hardly any of Williams’ personality or joie de vivre is allowed to seep through.

No doubt Robbie’s fans will continue to lap this up despite the lack of progress from his earlier work and the fact that he’s been on a clear downward spiral for the last decade or so. In order for this to be his legacy, Williams had to appeal to a new set of younger fans, and he fails on that brief by failing to provide anything that captures, or even sets, the current cultural zeitgeist. He seems destined to retire disgracefully, fading away rather than burning out gloriously. Expect to see him performing The Hits (ie anything released before 2004) on a cruise ship or in Vegas within ten years.

5/10

Reality Killed The Video Star is streaming on Spotify from Friday 6 November – click here to listen for free.

This review was written for TMM.

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