Listen to this article
The big guns have been wheeled out for Robbie Williams’ new album The Heavy Entertainment Show, his first under a new deal with Sony Records. His old production foil Guy Chambers, the Nelson Riddle to Robbie’s Sinatra, is back on board, while other songwriting credits go to Ed Sheeran, The Killers and Sergei Prokofiev, who somewhere in the great beyond has taken his rivalry with Stravinsky up a notch. Follow that, Igor.
At east London’s Troxy, Williams marked the album’s launch with an old-fashioned extravaganza filmed for television broadcast. His eight-strong band and three backing singers stood on a brightly illuminated tiered stage. In front of them was a boxing ring. Seventeen young women wearing very little paraded around it like burlesque ring girls, each carrying aloft a silver statuette as though enacting a gaudy fertility ritual. As the 42-year-old said, surveying the nubility under the gaze of his wife in the circle: “It’s like being a diabetic in a cake shop.”
That was a rare flash of levity in a performance which otherwise had an oddly lumpy texture to it. The first number, performed in the ring, was The Heavy Entertainment Show’s title track, a comically vaunting number with a hint of oompah. “He’ll sell his children for a hit in Belgium,” the back-up singers chorused. But Williams played his part a little too self-seriously, in the manner of one who really would do anything for the faintest taste of Flemish fame.
Two hits from his heyday followed, “Let Me Entertain You” and “Rock DJ”. Williams sang them heartily, pistoning his hips like Elvis and falling to his knees in the style of a footballer scoring the winning goal. With 75m album sales to his name — more if you count his stint in the boy band Take That — he can still turn it on.
New track “Party Like a Russian” was a witty portrait of Slavic hedonism, a cabaret number built around Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights, with dancers doing inventive en pointe routines. In contrast, “Mixed Signals”, written by The Killers, was as formulaic as powdered milk and less nutritious, a thin pop-rock jaunt. A technical glitch when the boxing ring was raised, causing a delay, symbolised the set’s curate’s egg character.
Towards the end Williams’s ex-colleagues in Take That materialised to sing a pair of nostalgic hits with him, before presenting the singer with a Brits Icon award, a UK music industry bauble previously given to Elton John and David Bowie. Williams responded by reciting his 1998 poem “Hello Sir”, a well-written dig at a teacher who put him down at school. That abiding sense of insecurity, unresolved after so much success, spilled into a night of fitful entertainment.