Does Robbie Williams suffer any inhibitions? The man himself claims to. “I’ve always been scared to try out different things,” he confesses in the publicity bumf to his new album Rudebox. But now that he’s 32 and has eight solo albums under his belt such fears have disappeared, freeing him to “just go and do wonky pop now, which is all I really wanted to do anyway”.
So Rudebox finds Robbie, hardly a shrinking violet at the best of times, in an uninhibited frame of mind. “It has become something on which I’ve found myself,” he tells us, presumably having failed to find himself on earlier albums such as Life Thru a Lens and The Ego Has Landed. The result is self-indulgence on a grand scale: a musical folly that is so misbegotten it’s almost admirable.
The album’s first single and title track, “Rudebox”, a bratty re-creation of the 1980s electro-pop that Williams grew up listening to, serves warning of what to expect. It’s a terrible song – a lurching concoction of squelching synthesisers, maladroit choruses and tasteless lyrics exhorting us to “make your body shake like you’re stood on a landmine” – which barely dented the charts when it came out.
Will the album also be a flop? So far Robbie has led a charmed life pop-wise, his only professional failure being his inability to crack the US market. No matter how egregious his displays of ambition – his album of Frank Sinatra cover versions, for instance – the public has indulged him all the way. But Rudebox threatens to test his fans’ patience to breaking point.
It’s not a total disaster. “Lovelight”, on which Robbie affects a decent falsetto, is an upbeat disco track produced by Mark Ronson, a voguish DJ-producer. “Kiss Me” is another enjoyable disco track, reminiscent of Madonna. Nineteen-eighties’ dance-pop references continue with frequent nods to the Pet Shop Boys, which climax with a cover of “We’re the Pet Shop Boys”. It’s hard to imagine a singer less temperamentally inclined to Neil Tennant’s style of languid irony than Williams, but he restrains himself enough to do a surprisingly convincing Pet Shop Boys impression.
The problem with Rudebox is that bad or bizarre tracks far outweigh the good ones. The worst offender is a woeful cover of The Human League’s “Louise”, produced by William Orbit (who produced Madonna’s Ray of Light), whose kitsch electronic harmonies resemble elevator music. “Bong Bong and Je Ne T’Aime Plus”, a irritatingly perky novelty song featuring Lily Allen, runs it a close second.
But what really sinks the album isn’t its overlong sprawl or the fact that its 18 tracks seem to be sequenced at random. Its most glaring fault is Robbie’s absurd misapprehension that he can rap. Barely a song goes by without his making a stumbling effort at rapping, as irrepressible and fateful a flaw as Macbeth’s ambition or Othello’s jealousy.
Mark it down to hubris. Williams has successfully pastiched most styles of pop music – George Michael in “Freedom”, Oasis in “Old Before I Die”, Kiss in “Let Me Entertain You” – so he must have thought rapping would be a cinch. But his clumsy vocal delivery and lack of lyrical prowess are deadly. You cringe each time he embarks on a rap: “And then granddad died/And left a hole in the family/And lots of women to nanny me . . . ”
In the press release, perhaps sensing the derision heading his way, Robbie strikes a defiant note: “I want to be a rapper but the world won’t let me . . . I love words and I will continue to use them.” This grandiosity, I think, is the key to Rudebox’s failure. Pop stars are supposed to be hubristic: we want them to be larger than life, to live by their own rules. At times they go too far, as shown by the current controversy surrounding Madonna’s regal adoption of an African child. Rudebox is the musical equivalent: an album so spectacularly wrong, only a great pop star could have made it.