As a plain statement of intent, The Heavy Entertainment Show doesn’t lie. A most gilded production, the eleventh (!) studio album from the demure soul that is Robbie Williams boasts a veritable murderers’ row in its liner notes.
It’s very much ‘go big or go home’ for the Robster here – and given his mansion is apparently haunted by the spectre of Michael Winner, you understand his desire to surround himself with studio glow – as the likes of Guy Chambers, Rufus Wainwright, The Killers, a Snow Patroller, Ed Sheeran, Gary Go, Benny Blanco and plenty more contribute in some way, shape or form. The embarrassment of riches extends to relegating John Grant to the always-essential ‘Deluxe Edition’ bonus track bench.
In case the impressively terrible ‘Party Like a Russian’ and its invocation of Prokofiev didn’t make it immediately clear, Robbie has come to play and he expects your shock, awe and full attention. He’s got a stadium tour to think of, and the very realistic possibility that this could be the final bow at that level. He can probably hope to pop up on point of sale displays in supermarkets until the end of both point of sale displays and supermarkets but surely the devil is long overdue on his contract collection at this point?
The Heavy Entertainment Show, as one could reasonably expect from literally every piece of the advance jigsaw, is a terrific mess of a thing. It trades heavily on past glories, wildly outdated tropes, the aforementioned A-list personnel and, crucially, Williams’ strengths as a fearless performer who is game to throw anything and everything at the wall in desperate bid to remain a household name. And so we kick off with a big nothing song-and-dance worthy of opening an episode of The X Factor in which he spits lines like ”Welcome to The Heavy Entertainment Show, where Eminem meets Barry Manilow” before rhyming “notorious” with “chor-i-us”.
Still, it’s better than Rudebox, I guess. The problem with The Heavy Entertainment Show isn’t so much Big Robbie’s transparent attempt to recall his KISS Demon days, rather a larger issue symptomatic of a lot of male-driven modern pop; the overwhelming majority of these songs aren’t about anything. Even with the variety show gimmick front and centre, the hollow nature of this enterprise is inescapable. There’s no flow, no narrative, no sense of writing to achieve anything other than numbers.
‘Party Like a Russian’ leaves no natural place to turn so why not go with ‘Mixed Signals’, the kind of track that feels like a really cheap knock-off of ‘When You Were Young’ only it’s actually written by the same band and screams with the kind of earnestness that might make Jon Bon Jovi think twice. Then it’s off to uplifting quasi-spiritual humble-bragging MOR ballad territory with ‘Love My Life’ before the PG Oasis dirge of ‘Motherfucker’ only that’s not whiplash-inducing enough so here’s a Wilhem Scream to announce the Robbie Williams twist on ‘Let’s Stick Together’ and then there’s some awkward slap bass sub-George Michael R&B and oh christ how are there four songs left…
For all his court jester japery, Robbie Williams 2016 is exceptionally banal. Long gone are the days when his antics were the least bit intriguing, when he’d boast about his money and fame and trophies both living and inanimate, when he’d actually bust out something like ‘No Regrets’ and you’d think, ‘Yeah, there is something of substance in there somewhere…’ He is still a marketable commodity for the same reason that many from his era are; they had the good fortune to exist and operate when they did, and they’re going to cling on for as long as humanly possible.
The strategy, of course, is to play it safe. Who knew that for Robbie Williams that meant swinging for the fences only to find netting everywhere? You break down a track like ‘Motherfucker’ and its subject matter should stir something of note considering it’s a candid tell-all of family trauma and a possible matter-of-fact heads up to his two-year-old son, but its chief author confuses the tone utterly. It’s not just songs penned with superior writers – Rufus Wainwright makes the dime store whimsy of ‘Hotel Crazy’ sing because he’s Rufus Wainwright – but the feeling that nothing here belongs to Robbie Williams, that he’s officially completely interchangeable, that he’s become trapped in a maze of his own making, and all of the noise seems so very quiet now.
3Dave Hanratty's Score