“They said it was leaving me, the magic was leaving me, I don’t think so,” Robbie Williams sings triumphantly during “Be A Boy,” the opening song on his ninth studio album, Take The Crown. Having followed Robbie’s career for well over a decade I feel confident in saying that that statement is directed at his critics. After all Robbie’s career was dwindling not so long ago. His album Rudebox essentially flopped, especially when compared to the success of his previous albums. Meanwhile, Take That, the boy band that Robbie started his career with, reunited without Robbie and did very, very well. And Robbie’s next album, Reality Killed The Video Star, also more or less flopped, this while Take That had a second huge album without him. At that point it was obvious that Robbie needed Take That. If he could reunite with them and do something great then perhaps he’d win back his fans, which would ultimately help him with his solo career, too. So, talks were had and Robbie reunited with Take That. But before they made an album Robbie released In And Out Of Consciousness: Greatest Hits 1990 – 2010. It featured a duet with Gary Barlow, the fellow Robbie had the most problems with in Take That. The song they did together, “Shame,” was actually about what they’d been through. “What a shame I never listened, I told you through the television,” they sang. People loved it. It was a huge hit. Then the Take That album was made. It was called Progress and it was not what anybody expected. It was nothing like their previous albums. Not even the two they’d recently made during the years before the reunion. No, Progress was a darker album. It featured futuristic, forward-thinking pop with exquisite production. There were songs on the album that rivaled Muse with their sci-fi glory and overall brilliance. And to show the fans that they were serious about the reunion, they wrote a song about it called “The Flood” and it was released as the first single from Progress. Just as “Shame” made fans accept Robbie’s rekindled friendship with Gary Barlow, “The Flood” assured fans that Robbie was in good graces with the other three members of Take That as well. They’d fallen apart and now they were fixed. Healed. And Progress was a massive hit. A huge album. And so the guys did a huge tour to support it. They even re–released the album under the title Progressed, giving fans another eight perfectly dark, thought-provoking gems. And so, with that success behind him, Robbie has now released Take The Crown, an album where he’s clearly trying to achieve what he did not only with Take That but in his own solo career during the days when he had huge hits like “Angels” and “Strong.”
The opening song, “Be A Boy,” which I mentioned above, starts off with sunshiny synth, which is soon joined by horns. The synth remains throughout much of the song, which seems to alternate between live drums and programmed beats. But it’s Robbie’s voice that strings it all together and makes it something magical. From the parts where he’s chanting “oh waaaayay” through those moments where he’s attacking his critics, this propulsive song has your constant attention. Robbie the showman is back, standing in the center of the ring, and this is an album worthy of that. The proof of this would seem to be Robbie’s recent European tour where he performed several cuts from the album each night and the audience ate them up with fervor. Robbie has taken the crown all right. He took it, had it polished, and now he’s wearing it.
The first single from Take The Crown was “Candy,” which was written by Robbie with his aforementioned Take That brother Gary Barlow and one T. Olsen. Collaborating on the first single from Take The Crown with one of the guys from Take That was a brilliant move on Robbie’s part, insurance that the Take That fans would still be fans of Robbie when he went solo again because, well, how could they not love Robbie when he’s written his first single with Gary Barlow? It didn’t even seem to matter that the song wasn’t very good. I’ll admit that it’s a grower, one of those songs that you find catchier and catchier each time you hear it, but I’ve listened to the album more times than I can count now and I still would have to say that “Candy” is one of its lesser tracks. But, hey, if you don’t like “Candy,” don’t worry, Robbie wrote another song for the album with Gary and hitmaker Jacknife Lee — a power ballad of sorts called “Different.” It’s a fascinating track because it’s rather depressing lyrically — about someone begging for acceptance by someone who didn’t think he was good enough before — but it’s very uplifting musically with an incredible wall of sound crafted by everything from scorching electric guitars to soaring strings and Herculean layers of vocals that almost drown out the beat entirely. “This time I’ll be different, I promise you, this time I’ll be special, you know I will,” Robbie sings, pleading, needing, wanting that acceptance. Is it directed at a girlfriend or parent or Take That? No, no and no. Robbie’s had a steady girl for quite some time now and they’ve even just had a baby, meanwhile he has a great relationship with his parents and he’s on good terms with Take That. (Again, Gary Barlow co-wrote this one.) No, it’s either about someone in Robbie’s past or it’s just a song. Which sounds strange somehow, the idea that a Robbie Williams song could just be a song. So very often his songs have reflected where he’s at in his life or otherwise had some deep personal meaning to him, which fans would pick up on and tabloids would spell out. But now, here, on Take The Crown, we have a Robbie who doesn’t need anything from anyone, really. Which, somehow, makes “Different” that much more of a magnificent song, knowing that Robbie was able to become a character and play a role when writing the song with Gary and Jacknife. “I stumble through the words as they’re leaving me, tremble at the sight of your majesty and I cut myself just to get them out,” Robbie sings. Which should have the tabloids pondering whether or not Robbie is a cutter any minute now. But that’s not important. The important thing is what the song means to people. How many cutters will hear this song and take solace in it?
Take The Crown does have plenty of upbeat songs. “Shit On The Radio” is, ironically, the sort of catchy song you’d normally hear in heavy rotation on the radio. But, given the swear in its name, which appears countless times in the song, it’s unlikely to ever get played on radio. (This song makes the longtime Robbie fan in me very happy because it shows that Robbie’s sense of humor is back.) “All That I Want” is also an up-tempo track and rather irresistible, though its sexual lyrics will probably keep it off of the radio. It’s followed by “Hunting For You,” another lustful song, though it’s not quite as addictive as “All That I Want.”
Getting back to Robbie’s sense of humor, it’s clearly intact during “Hey Wow Yeah Yeah,” which features ridiculous lyrics that are basically just nonsense throughout the entire song. Example: “boy, boy, boy, on girl, girl, clap your hands, clap your hands, if you wanna, wanna.” It’s clearly Robbie’s idea of a joke and yet he’s been performing it live recently, probably to get some laughter out of the audience.
All in all, Take The Crown is an album full of diverse tunes that may take a few listens to grow on you but it’s a very rewarding album if you take the time to get to know it. Honestly, the first four or five times I listened to it I wasn’t very impressed and thought it was going to be the first Robbie Williams album ever that I didn’t like, but when I started listening to it again to get ready to write this review I suddenly started liking the songs and now I can’t seem to stop listening to them, so I’ll end this review with a warning: THIS ALBUM MAY BE HABIT FORMING.