Pop CD of the week: Frank Black, Honeycomb

Pop CD of the week: Intensive Care is often boring, says Kitty Empire, but, crucially, never dull.

Robbie Williams

Intensive Care



Robbie Williams's show-stealing turn at Live8 last August announced his return to pop business after months recording in his Beverly Hills mansion. Williams apparently celebrated hard afterwards. Not by partying late into the night with the aid of potions and powders, but by thrashing his manager at Scrabble. Britain's favourite ham was back, it seemed, and with a radically different use for a handful of Es.

But has Williams - more sober and now into his thirties - changed all that much? Well, yes and no. Certainly, his last album proper, Escapology, marked the end of an era. Williams's longtime songwriting partner, Guy Chambers, only had a minimal input on Robbie's seventh album; he has none at all on Intensive Care, signalling the end of one of the most productive pop partnerships since Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman. In his stead, Robbie hired Stephen Duffy, a founder member of Duran Duran, who left after four gigs and went on to make gentle, jangling Eighties pop under his own name, as Tintin, and fronting the Lilac Time. His albums were bijou, collector's things rather than chart gold.

Duffy's first commission for Williams, the brash, synthesized 'Radio', went straight to Number One last year. Nevertheless, the prospect of a full-length Williams/Duffy collaboration was truly ear-boggling stuff. You could imagine more 'Radio'-style Eighties power-keys, but would Robbie take to Duffy's main love - effete, even pastoral, guitar pop?

In the event, Intensive Care is a far more sensible record than the strange period romp it seemed that 'Radio' might have been preparing us for. The Eighties loom large, in the same way that they do on Gwen Stefani's Love Angel Music Baby: mostly as happy memories, recreated Noughties style, rather than slavish era pastiches. That said, there is a strange David Bowie-in-a-big-suit gloss to 'Ghosts', Intensive Care's brave opening track; and it sounds, too, like Kate Bush limbering up her tonsils in the background. The song was inspired by the Human League's 'Louise' - just one of the overt references to Williams's musical youth that litter the album. In 'Spread Your Wings', Oran 'Juice' Jones and Jocelyn Brown crop up in the lyrics, while Robbie turns storyteller, recalling an old girlfriend, and urging us to remember our dreams.

Nostalgia is a big theme here, which makes a fairly pleasant change for an artist more used to swinging between chest-beating bluster and poor-me blub. Condensed, Robbie Williams's latterday oeuvre runs something like this: 'I love myself - and so do you. Deep down, though, I hate myself. Despite having been in Take That, I quite fancy women. But the bitches will screw me given half a chance. Sorry, nan. Here's one about a monkey. Really, though, I just want love.' Intensive Care replaces Escapology's daft song about a monkey with a strange disco-reggae gangster caper, 'Tripping'. The bristling, meanwhile, gives way to reflection.

There's a big ballad here, 'Make Me Pure', that is potentially as civilisation-flattening as 'Angels', while the oblique 'Advertising Space' considers the sorry lot of an Elvis-like pop star with more insight than you would once have credited to Williams. This creeping dignity also extends to Williams's voice, turning tender on 'Please Don't Die' and mannered on 'Sin Sin Sin'.

Still, the erstwhile fool on the hill hasn't turned into Johnny Cash overnight. Williams's tendency to look back with synthesizers soon gives way to impish lairiness. For every self-flagellating turn such as 'The Trouble With Me', there's a jolly new wave guitar pogo like 'Your Gay Friend' or 'A Place To Crash', which steals the guitar riff from the Rolling Stones's 'Brown Sugar'. 'Random Acts', meanwhile, is an unexpectedly reverberating rock song that might finally earn 'the fat dancer from Take That' some respect from the author of that slander, Noel Gallagher.

Intensive Care, then, is often boring, following the usual 'I'm brilliant! No, I'm a low dog. Here's one you can dance to. Won't somebody please love me?' line - but, crucially, never dull. And with his every madcap whim making straight for the higher reaches of the charts. It seems Williams may have rearranged the letters of his issues wisely after all.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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