Robbie Williams’ new album Take the Crown lives up to its ambiguous title. It topped the charts at the same time as lead single “Candy” was number one, a double Williams hasn’t done since 2001. But sales by his standards have been poor, and two weeks on, the album is poised to fall from the top 10. The crown isn’t lost, but it’s slipping.
At least there’s one place where King Robbie still holds court, a haven where our hero can be sure to find “protect-shun and a lotta love and affect-shun”. That place is the showman’s natural home – the stage.
The first of three nights at the O2 Arena found Williams masking signs of his fallibility with a typical display of chutzpah. The staging was in the round, an imaginative use of the space. Robbie entered through the audience like a boxer and strutted around milking the adulation. The lights went down, a spotlight picking out the singer, arms held wide as the band struck up “Let Me Entertain You”. Thousands of camera phones flashed. It was a superstar entrance.
Williams’ gift as a performer doesn’t lie in singing and dancing, both of which he’s good at without being remarkable, but rather in his ability to project a hugely compelling sense of personality, at once egotistical and down-to-earth. Huge glittery Robbie busts descended immodestly for “Rock DJ”, while the self-lacerating “Come Undone” found him roaring “I am scum” before falling to his knees, arms up in supplication. Cue another explosion of camera flashes.
Psychodrama on that scale would usually disqualify a person from normal social interaction. But Robbie somehow remains a man of the people. When he was goosed while glad-handing the audience during “Strong”, his response was pure Stoke-on-Trent cheeky chappie: “That’s my arse that is!”
It will take exceptional talent for someone to take his crown as the UK’s best-selling solo artist. Yet tonight’s show had a bittersweet nostalgic tang. Ex-songwriting partner Guy Chambers, with whom Williams wrote his best material, made a guest appearance on piano. The warm gospel-house of 2002’s “Feel” threw the strident sub-Coldplayisms of Take the Crown’s songs into sharp relief.
His signature hit “Angels” should have ended the set. Instead he played new song “Losers”, whose sentiments were ironically illustrated by the sight of streams of people heading for the exit. In the court of King Robbie, the “lotta love and affect-shun” is for the old days.