or someone so desperate to be loved it’s a terrible irony that Robbie Williams comes across as so distinctly unlikeable. Take the galling exercise in emotional onanism that was his tour diary-cum-rockumentary, Somebody Nobody, as exhibits A right through to Z. On the surface he’s the reluctant Lad’s Champion and everyday loveable rogue but a mere scratch at the veneer gushes forth a cascade of (self-induced) paranoia and an apparently crippling sense of self-loathing. Now with Guy Chambers, the Yoda to Robbie’s Luke, having spread his strings and taken the guitar elsewhere (Lord knows they need a songwriter at Pop Idol towers....) and the ink still settling on the biggest recording contract in UK pop history, Robbie Williams has again a lot that he wants to prove to us. Escapology offers us few pop riots to partake in nor bed-hopping opportunities masquerading as superstar duet. Instead this represents a continuation of the more mature themes explored within last year’s big band travesty, Swing When You’re Winning, and the result is RW’s most middle of the road but conversely most interesting body of work to date.
More than anything in his career, Escapology is literally riddled with confession and confusion. The snowball of doubt he lobbed in “Strong” has now accumulated into a burgeoning avalanche of misanthropy. In “Hot Fudge” he discloses “Mother, things have got to change/I’m moving to LA”, and, as if with weight lifted from his shoulders, it’s the most upbeat and free spirited number of the album; all raucous wah-wah and blues piano dive-bombing into a marble swimming pool from a condo overlooking Santa Monica Boulevard. “Nan’s Song” is a simple lament to his late grandmother and it sounds like nothing more than a little boy lost: “You went to a better place but he stole you away from me”. He will no doubt shed a tear and hold a candle whilst relaying it on tour every night, on cue. You might even say it’s been rehearsed to perfection. And that, as unfair as that sounds, is the trouble with Robbie Williams. Again, “Come Undone” deals with his personal torment in a nutshell, another piano-drizzled piece that lays bare his self-perception in a startlingly brutal assessment. “You’ve got to love your son / I am scum”, goes the refrain. You only love me because you have to - there’s a sentiment to etch at the chalkiest of hearts.
The mid-run of Escapology continually bangs this tired old drum. I can’t love. I can’t be loved. No wonder Robbie Williams claims that £80million means nothing to him, cause you just can’t buy the kind of sympathy he wants – or rather supposedly doesn’t. “I’m here to make money and get laid” he says, and the world collapses in on itself in a knowing stroke of chin. This is the dichotomy at the very centre of RW. His public persona sits at the trough of decadence, continually basking in everything thrown his way. But he keeps reminding us how much he hates all that, hates the machine in which he is an integral cog; hates the job we’d all give our nuts for. He despises the very thing which defines and confines him, creating this cosmic chasm which tears him asunder. “It’s hard to be humble when you’re this fucking big” – is he a showman or man on show? It’s hard to take seriously the anguish of a guy so self-obsessed he wears a plastic cast of his own visage as mocking disguise, a gesture which says “I want to be seen not being seen”. How fucked is that?
Let’s not stray from the fact that, in real life, Robbie Williams is primarily an entertainer with a decent canon of popular tunes. For example “Something Beautiful”, which sounds much more like a first single than the limp David Grey-a-thon of “Feel”. A melodic first cousin of “She’s The One” it carries Robbie’s indelible seal of arms-aloft pop and is punctuated by big brass parps and stirring keys. Tellingly it’s his closest Elton John moment to date, and that’s certainly no coincidence. This may not be the last comparison we can draw between the two, but that’s for another discussion entirely. Elsewhere “Handsome Man” comes as welcome respite, a rare punch of celebration amongst the mope (“You could argue with my popularity, but you’d be wrong”) and “Come Undone” is a well-crafted, bittersweet eulogy to fame. On the other hand we’ve the paradoxically titled “Sexed Up” which resembles Noel Gallagher at his most sentimental and lazy, reaching desperately for that next driftwood chord change. “Revolution” is anything but, and melds unconvincingly into the two preceding numbers in a glutinous mess of cod-soul.
“If I stopped lying I’d just disappoint you” is the motif of this record, and maybe it’s true. Robbie has put himself forward as the man he thinks the public need him to be, a mixed-up caricature of the guy the people want to read about over their morning cornflakes. The tattle and titillation only makes him redouble attempts to disclose his real self and we’re slowly becoming suffocated under the continued weight of his effort. He appears to identify with similarly anguished rock icons (“Listening to Kurt Cobain sing about lithium”) but in reality that is the level of fucked-up he’d actually like to be. RW is ensnared so far into the dance routines of his past, forever imprisoned in a gossip column that undermines his undeniable passion and, yes, wrists-slit honesty, that something as real as the Nirvana leader’s depression appears to him a maddeningly elusive validation of his own pain.
Someone needs to tell him just to stop analysing and get on with what he’s good at. After all, it’s only pop music.
Reviewed by: Karim Adab
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01