Robbie Williams

Intensive Care

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Despite his constant self-deprecation, Robbie Williams is a shrewd artist, one who can tell when a change is in order. It's impossible to tell if he would have agreed to continue working with producer Guy Chambers had Chambers not been forced out of the chair by money matters, but Williams lost little time in finding another creative partner. Stephen Duffy may not be as fluent in the last 40 years of guitar pop as Chambers is, but he immediately announces a changing of the guard on the first track, "Ghosts," with his ringing guitar and keyboards. And it works, briefly. The trailer single, "Tripping," is a warm, clubby single that slightly resembles "Rock DJ" (and it is slight in comparison), but sounds like it could find a comfortable home on both adult alternative radio and the dancefloor. Williams goes for the jugular on "Spread Your Wings," an ambitious portrait of a lover's reunion (based, he says, on an alternate view of Human League's "Louise"). His lyrics, however, only sketch in the details, and Duffy's arrangement is a pale shadow of a Smiths song from 20 years earlier. It's possible that the partnership of Duffy and Williams can still bear fruit, but it will require not only better music from Duffy, but far better performances from Williams, who delivers his lyrics as though, at this point, his performing personality can just be filled in by his fans. (Of course, personality was one trait never in short supply on previous albums.) He rarely even sounds like himself, instead choosing to channel his '80s heroes -- Bono, Morrissey, George Michael, even Tom Jones briefly. It's important to point out that since Intensive Care represents a new direction and a new sound, it is much more interesting than the creatively bankrupt Escapology. Still, nearly all of the qualities that made Robbie Williams interesting between 1995 and 2000 -- his irreverence, his biting wit, his status as the thinking man's conflicted hooligan -- are merely memories after Intensive Care.

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