Williams is a far better lyricist than he has been given credit for. Tucked away on The Heavy Entertainment Show, Sensational is a witty, incisive skewering of the occasionally fraught relationship between artist and audience: “I love you ’cause you love me, and I wish that you could always stay. Now go away.”
Most of Williams’s oeuvre has improved with age – the quality of his big hits is easier to appreciate now that they are not omnipresent – but Candy, co-written with Gary Barlow, remains a guilty pleasure: it is almost wilfully cheesy and maddeningly catchy. As a piece of unrepentant bubblegum pop, it ticks every box.
Tripping looks awful on paper: the lyrics include a quote commonly misattributed to Mahatma Gandhi, the sound is reggae-influenced – or at least reggae by way of the early 80s Clash. It is melodically subtle and downbeat – at least by Williams single standards – but curiously it works.
Long before mental health became a hot topic in pop music, Williams was laying bare his struggles in song. Motherfucker is the most startling of the lot: addressed to his children, it details generations of illness they might inherit: “I’d like to sing a song that says that you’ll be fine, but … I’d be lying.”
Williams subsequently took to deriding the Trevor Horn-produced Reality Killed the Video Star as “half-arsed” and dubbing it Let Me Underwhelm You, but its opening track is great. Lovely melody, grandiose orchestration, lyrics that – typically – fret about reviews and star ratings and Williams’ own ambition: “All I wanted was the world.”
An infinitely more convincing take on Beatle-influenced alt-rock than the pallid Oasis-isms of 1997’s Old Before I Die and Lazy Days, Let Love Be Your Energy barrels confidently out of the speakers, a killer song atop wall of distorted guitars, its arrangement decorated with nods to I Am the Walrus and Penny Lane.
It would be lovely to retrospectively claim that Rudebox – the album that ended Williams’ imperial phase at a stroke – is a lost left-field pop masterpiece, but it still sounds confused and patchy: the product of an artist who wants to do something different but hasn’t worked out what. Still, the good bits are great, not least this witty, Kraftwerk-y Pet Shop Boys collaboration.
Amid the camp jokes and Great American Songbook standards on Swings Both Ways lurked Go Gentle, a beautifully understated paean to his daughter, audibly influenced not by the swing era, but the sound of grownup, late-60s LA pop – Harry Nilsson, Jimmy Webb-era Glen Campbell.
You got the feeling that Williams, a fan of Ian Dury, saw Rock DJ as his tribute to the Blockheads’ disco-influenced hits: here, the backing comes from Barry White’s mid-tempo It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me, while the rhythm of lyrics is audibly inspired by the Blockheads’ Reasons to Be Cheerful (Part 3).
The sound of a man on top of the world – the accompanying Escapology album went platinum in more than 14 countries – protesting “I’m not sure I understand the role that I’ve been given”, the resolutely downcast lyrics rubbing against the tune’s soaring, orchestra-assisted uplift.
“He nicked my pig and killed it, but he gave me enough bacon to live off for four years,” said World Party’s Karl Wallinger after Williams covered his 1997 album track. It’s a great song, but Williams’s less fragile, less Beatles-y take turned it into the kind of single that goes platinum.
Long established as Williams’s set-opening theme song, it is easy to overlook the fact that Let Me Entertain You’s lyrics aren’t about the singer’s needy desire for an audience: they are a genuinely witty drawing of a man desperately trying to talk someone into bed. Bizarre but true fact: it began life as, of all things, a drum’n’bass track.
Williams spent his early solo career spitting bile at his former Take That bandmates in interviews, but while his musical summation of their split has the odd barbed line, its overall tone is not bitter so much as crestfallen and, well, regretful: it sounds like a sigh, haunted by what might have been.
A highlight amid the mess of Rudebox, the Mark Ronson-produced Lovelight is not just a fantastic song, but a weirdly prescient one. Sixteen years on, its falsetto-vocal and blend of Daft Punk electronics with super-smooth yacht-rock-y disco sounds very now: frankly, if Harry Styles released it tomorrow, we would never hear the end of it.
Prime evidence for how good the Robbie Williams/Guy Chambers songwriting team was at its best, Supreme has a gorgeous chanson-inspired melody; the way it teases its passing similarity to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive in the lyrics before finally letting rip with a string sample from the 1979 hit is inspired.
Angels was so ubiquitous for so long that it is almost impossible for anyone of a certain age to listen to it objectively: throughout the late 90s and 00s, it wasn’t so much a song as an unavoidable fact of daily life. Most pop songwriters would kill to come up with something with such impact and longevity.
Intensive Care, Williams’s first album without Chambers, is sorely underrated. Co-written by 80s pop star turned cult folk-rocker Stephen Duffy, Advertising Space is a ballad as good as anything the singer ever recorded: an emotive, epic meditation on the death of Elvis and the strained relationship between art and commerce.
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If Williams had a penchant for complex, racked examinations of his career and his psyche, he was also more than capable of coming up with utterly uncomplicated balls-out pop: the entirely fantastic Kids packs a monster chorus, a guest appearance from Kylie and lyrics that cheerfully played on the media obsession with Williams’s sexuality.
In his heyday, Williams was frequently mocked as an eager-to-please light entertainer, which now seems unfair: here was a huge British star who was charismatic, outspoken, conflicted, his oeuvre packed with curiously meta hits. “This is real because I feel fake,” offers Strong, a song about weakness and self-doubt that sounds ready to take on the world.
“My main talent is turning trauma into something that looks showbizzy,” Williams told the Guardian in 2016: a perfect summation of Come Undone. Musically, it is a beautifully turned example of a 00s power ballad, gentle piano and acoustic guitar verses surging into immense, air-punch-inducing chorus. Lyrically, it is something else. Come Undone thrashes about, exploring Williams’s success in terms that are alternately defiant – “fuck you all” – and so self-loathing they could have come from the pen of Kurt Cobain: he variously describes himself as “full of shit”, a “corporate suit”, “a whore” and “scum” and informs his audience that “if I stop lying I’d just disappoint you”. A depiction of fame unravelling that is specifically designed to be a hit – it made the Top 5 – it’s an extraordinary song.