There's only one Robbie Williams. Top entertainer. Top guy. Class clown. Class act.
A man so maddeningly cool he can hold an audience in the palm of his hand while, ahem, adjusting himself with the other. Small wonder (ahem again) that the man is hailed as the UK's most gifted and celebrated star.
But, as true artists so often are, Robbie Williams is a complex and quixotic soul. Despite a gold-certified U.S. debut in The Ego Has Landed, record-breaking worldwide sales (approximately 5 million combined for previous LPs Life Thru A Lens and I've Been Expecting You), unfailingly incendiary live shows and rabid worldwide acclaim, Williams has spent his share of time shrouded in confusion...
That was then...
Now: Robbie Williams returns with Sing While You're Winning. This time, he's on top of his game and, perhaps more importantly, totally naked. (And we're not just talking about his October British VOGUE cover with Gisele...)
"In the past," he admits, "it's been difficult for me to talk about things I believe in and not dress it up in irony in case someone takes the piss out of me. I think I've gotten to the point where I'm prepared to be sincere."
Quite a claim following the supreme mind-fuck of the last year: Rarely off the international radio or radar, amassing armfuls of accolades for superb songwriting and showmanship, setting his sights on the United States and going home with a gold record and Entertainment Weekly Album of the Year honors, our Rob seems to have weathered it all by sticking to a single modus operandi: Being himself.
And on August 28th 1999, Robbie Williams took on the single biggest challenge of his career, headlining at Slane Castle in Dublin. The full capacity of 80,000 tickets sold out five weeks in advance. Expectations could not have been higher. Ever the consummate showman, Robbie delivered a show that everyone in attendance-and the 50,000 who logged on for the simultaneous webcast-will never forget.
Somehow, amidst the madness, media and mayhem of that same year, Robbie Williams managed to find time to conceive, write and record Sing While You're Winning. A fearless leap forward for Robbie as a lyricist, singer and artist, Sing?features 12 songs, co-written once again with musical mastermind Guy Chambers, immediate and mysterious, unashamedly populist and beguilingly intelligent.
As with The Ego Has Landed and the two solo LPs from which it was compiled, Sing While You're Winning makes ample use of the musical rulebook?as kindling. All bets are once again off: Guitar-fueled rock anthems sit happily alongside country-tinged love songs while super sexy funk nestles cheek-by-jowl with the classic balladry that has become synonymous with the name Robbie Williams.
Speaking of which, like "Angels" before it, Sing?standout "Better Man" is a song so simple and emotionally direct, it will both break your heart and fill you with hope. Honest, tender and raw in its search for self and promise of redemption, it is quite possibly the best song Robbie Williams has ever written-or at least the one of which he's most proud.
"I was heartbroken," says Williams of the time in his life that spawned the song. "Nothing to do with relationships, but I was thinking, 'Well, you've got it, son. You've sold eight million albums, made money, you're more famous than anyone would want to be and it's not doing it, is it?' So I sat outside with my guitar and I thought, 'I'll just pray to John Lennon and if he's listening maybe he'll give me something.' Now that can be taken as raging arrogance or plain loony but I started strumming these chords which became the verse and the whole thing was written in an hour. And I mean that song. It's me being honest. Not ironic or smart-arse. It's just me."
On the other hand, virtually all of Sing While You're Winning vies for the "Robbie's Best Work To Date" prize: The opening call to arms of "Let Love Be Your Energy" has been likened to bastard-spawn of Lenny Kravitz and Marilyn Manson. First single "Rock DJ" is a HUGE Daft Punk-meets-Parliament party stomper inspired in part by the late great Ian Dury. "Forever Texas" is a bionic rocker that pushes the testosterone levels into the red, while "Kids" is a powerhouse Who-indebted duet with none other than Kylie Minogue.
(As is always the case, each of these influences is balanced out by equal parts Robbie. In the case of the "Rock DJ" video, Robbie's?parts are actually distributed amongst a roller-disco-ing throng in a future burlesque that sees its star quite literally stripped down to the bone?But more on that another day.)
Of course, Sing?has its tender moments too. "If It's Hurting You" is a gentle lament underscored by poignant curlicues of pedal steel guitar. The song was written about Robbie's painful break-up with former fiancee' Nicole Appleton, as is the touchingly poetic meditation "The Beach."
"I saw Nicky recently," says Robbie. "It was great because we did that thing for a year where you'd bump into each other: 'I'm really happy and doing absolutely fine without you. Look! I'm telling jokes and I'm laughing and I'm just so relaxed in company and at ease in any social situation! And I'm walking like John Travolta in Grease!' It was good to meet up and go 'You alright?' 'No.' 'You alright?' 'No.' It was such a relief to stop pretending we were fine without each other. It felt good."
These are good times for Robbie. He looks great-imagine James Dean alive and well and joining the Clash!-he's writing like a dream and America is once again beckoning. But, more crucially these days, Robbie Williams is looking life square in the eye, confident with himself, finally prepared to deal head-on with his triumphs, his failures and the myriad challenges ahead.
"I wouldn't change this for the world," Robbie says. "It's my job. I've been dealt a fantastic deal and I've just got to learn how to handle it. You're not given tools to learn how to cope with this. There's no celebrity support group you can go to."
"Actually there are," he reconsiders. "They're called awards ceremonies."
The man beyond the boy band, behind the awards?Let him entertain you all over again.
There's only one Robbie Williams.