6/10. Robbie Williams’ eleventh studio album is a mesh of pop standards that’s…pretty standard. This is an album that’s not greater than the sum of its parts. Best listened when you want to, for some reason, feel the rush of all stages of midlife crisis – from denial to overcompensation to beatific self-awareness – within the span of an hour.
I love chocolates. I love durians. I love original Yakult. I love fried chicken. I love the sambal tumis that comes accompanied with nasi lemak. I love a good pepperoni pizza. But if you mix all of the above together into some twisted olio of unlikely salad bowlfellows, then you’re going to get something completely unpalatable. The same goes for Robbie Williams’ latest effort, The Heavy Entertainment Show.
In an attempt to adhere to that tried and tested pop album formula (catchy first single, ballad, something mistakably avant garde, and so on, injected with that signature Robbie Williams cheek and verve), The Heavy Entertainment Show has only somewhat succeeded in heavily entertaining.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some undeniable gems in this album. Problem is, you have to soldier past the rather forgettable first two attempts at pomp and grandeur that open the album before you get to Mixed Signals, a sweeping 80s-style power pop anthem with the made-for-stadium zeal of Springsteen and the unmistakable cadence of classic The Killers. That’s not surprising because goddammit, the song was written by The Killers themselves. That’s a fact you might want to forget, however. It’s hard to unhear Brandon Flowers’ voice carrying the lovelorn lyrics to pastures greener and pastures more bittersweetly black-and-white.
Motherfucker is the most mature song of the album. Yes, you read that right. A brilliant, uplifting pop-rock number (yes, uplifting – you read that right, too), Motherfucker is sung by Robbie to his newborn son Charlton, a lament that Charlton might feel weird and “start losing hold of love” as he grows older, because “your uncle sells drugs/your cousin is a cutter/your grandpa’s in the gutter/your grandma is a fluffer/your mother is a nutter”. It is also a faithful expression of hope, that Charlton might rise above it all and move past the motherfuckery of his lineage.
There are some almost-gems as well – standout tracks that make the album an interesting listen, but without the stamp of a truly memorable song. Party Like A Russian, a track that has seriously pissed off some Russians, is fun, pompous, and admittedly catchy. “Have it like an oligarch”, Williams describes his life over a rocked-up sample of Sergei Prokofiev, as he boasts about being a “modern Rasputin”, and the ability to “take my loose change and build my own space station”. It takes confidence and a healthy hit of arrogance to carry a song like Party Like A Russian (especially if it’s self-descriptive), but very few can do it better than Robbie Williams. It’s an enjoyable song, but it’s nowhere near Williams’ best, and is an at-times cringeworthy reminder of Williams’ attempts at clinging on to the party animal image more suited to his younger self.
The second single after Party Like A Russian is Love My Life, a song co-written with Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid and yet another anthem dedicated to his family and fans. A soaring, mid-tempo song with a heartfelt chorus of “I am powerful, I am beautiful, I am free”, Love My Life has often been misinterpreted by critics. The Guardian describes it as “self-help” while Digital Spy described the lyrics as tongue-in-cheek. It should be taken into account, however, that there is a missing pronoun in the title – it is not “I Love My Life” – and that the prelude to the chorus goes “And one day you’ll say to me”. Here, Robbie Williams is shifting away from singing about his life and experiences, and is more consciously singing to his audience, rather than at them.
Stylistically, Sensitive sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the album. In certain beats, it’s not a bad thing. The song features strong basslines and modern pop riffs that wouldn’t be out of place in a Chainsmokers or ZAYN track. At my first listen, I thought I’d heard the song deep in the bowels of a H&M store, and therein lies the song’s biggest problem. In trying to meet today’s standards for pop music, Sensitive fades into the background as a by-the-numbers pop songs.
There are some honourable mentions here as well. There’s David’s Song, a moving tribute to Williams’ long-time manager David Enthoven, who passed away in 2015. Hotel Crazy, a collaboration with Rufus Wainwright, harkens to the deadpan darkness of Karma Killer. Best Intentions is melodious catharsis.
Overall, it’s an album you can enjoy, and there are moments in here that no pop star other than Robbie Williams can pull off. I imagine listening to this album is akin to hanging out with Robbie Williams: he’s still a load of fun, but he’s also more mellow than we’re used to, and more mature. His topics of conversation have moved beyond getting shitfaced and the insanity that ensues, and it’s heartening to witness. He’s still a slick entertainer, and indeed, a mad motherfucker.
But in the mad deluge of music that comes our way, this one fades quickly into the background. The result of all the mentioned songs in an album makes it a rather convoluted mess. In 1999, The Ego Has Landed. 17 years on, it’s still sticking around for The Heavy Entertainment Show, but we’re afraid it got too heavy to take off to greater stratospheres.
Listen to The Heavy Entertainment Show on Spotify: