he “fat dancer from Take That” (© Noel Gallagher, 1994) released a cover version of George Michael’s excellent “Freedom 90” (better than anything Happy Mondays ever did) as his debut single in 1996, a song chosen primarily to spite “the new George Michael” (© Everyone, 1994), otherwise known as Gary Barlow, his former band mate in Take That, and the man who had been widely regarded as both the creative force within the early 90s most successful boyband and also the Most Likely To Have A Successful Solo Career. But Robbie’s take on “Freedom” is nowhere to be seen on his new Greatest Hits compilation, an otherwise exhaustive collection of hit singles which he’s accumulated over the last eight years, and Gary Barlow is nowhere to be seen at all.
So why might Mr Williams choose to ignore that particular piece of his past? Because it’s a cover version? Doubtful, as his version of World Party’s “She’s The One” is present and correct. Perhaps he’s trying to completely cut ties with his former band, and such a spite-loaded, eye-on-history choice as a single now seems like a petulant gesture, especially given the fact that Robbie is now bigger than Take That ever were. Robbie has a thirst for reinvention, and it’s that thirst which has seen him propelled from hi-nrg gay-club floor fillers and sensitive pop ballads with Take That to the kind of international superstar solo artist status where he can happily duet (literally and metaphorically) with Hollywood stars (Nicole Kidman) on big band standards and still leave them off his Greatest Hits. But that’s Robbie in a nutshell; risk-taking backed with a constant need for approval, a perpetual hedging of bets despite a deep-seated need to show off and confound expectations. This is a man whose debut album went under the working title of The Show-Off Must Go On, remember. So why was “Freedom” ignored? Because Robbie has hit singles coming out of his ears, and this collection could easily have been a double CD. Yet he still includes a b-side just for the sake of contrariness…
Sometime before his last studio album, Robbie decided his creative relationship with Guy Chadwick had gone far enough, and sought out a new collaborator and, bizarrely, a new identity, claiming that his next album would be a “project” based around a character named Pure Francis. What happened to Pure Francis is unclear, but Robbie did find Stephen Duffy, and “Radio”, the UK number 1 that heralds this compilation, is the first fruits of their labour together. “Radio” might just be his best single yet, a foray into 80s electro-pop that, while maybe a year too late to garner cred from zeitgeist-predicting hipsters, still oozes quality and pushes him in yet another direction. Mannered and theatrical, it toys with Robbie’s identity while masquerading as a song about songs. But for someone so paranoid that people love the song but not the singer that could never be the case; everything Robbie does is about himself, even if it’s seemingly about nothing at all. But anyway, it certainly bodes well for his next record.
So what about the hits? Chances are that you’ll know everything here (with the exception of “The Road To Mandalay”, that errant b-side with delusions of grandeur), and chances are that your opinion is already set in stone. “Old Before I Die” is a clumsy Oasis-wannabe pop-rock stomp, “Lazy Days” a semi-tuneless waste of time, “Misunderstood” a saccharine ballad from the new Bridget Jones film, “Feel” a touch too woe-is-me autobiographical. But aside from these few missteps the quality comes thick and fast. Like it or loathe it, “Angels” made his career, and its unifying, melancholic power is undeniable. Likewise the irresistible stomps that are “Let Me Entertain You” (as true a sentiment for Robbie as “Rock N Roll Star” was for Noel Gallagher), “Millennium” and “Rock DJ”—cheesy they may be, but to denounce them for that would be churlish when they’re as effective as they are at what they do.
It’s when Robbie sidesteps expectations that he’s at his best, which is why “Radio” is so good. Likewise “Let Love Be Your Energy” is something approaching a diversion, and is all the better for it, slightly odd, slightly at an angle to Robbie’s usual output, and slightly better too. “Strong”, “Come Undone”, and especially “No Regrets”, offer unexpected (but not that unexpected) confessions of weakness and sentiment, more curveballs that further stretch the often cartoonish perception of Britain’s biggest pop star. Meanwhile the Kylie-starring “Kids” fits neatly into his oeuvre by not stretching it at all.
He gets a lot of stick, Robbie, from a lot of sides, but this collection makes it clear that, quite simply, he trounces all comers. Ronan Keating? AOR-before-his-time, joyless and without a hint of risk or kicks or performance. George Michael? Too smooth, too concerned with image, too past it and too caught out there. Brian McFadden? Don’t make me laugh. Only Eminem is a better white male pop star right now, and he’s moving in a totally different orbit. And as for Gary Barlow… well, the less said the better. Robbie Williams, somehow, is a national treasure.