The careers of most music celebrities are like passenger ships, able to steam along nearly indefinitely without the least chance of modifying course. With his work of the 21st century, Robbie Williams appeared to have set himself on a course that was guaranteed to keep him working for decades, remaining important to thousands of fans, but never varying from the type of adult alternative singer/songwriter material expected of him. Then came Rudebox, which proves he's not that simple -- or at least, not that satisfied with himself. It may be a good album because it says little about his inner life and emotional troubles, which are unceremoniously dropped in favor of hyper-sexualized or sarcastic dance music and ironic laugh-getters ("Make your body shake like you stood on a land mine," "Dance like you just won at the Special Olympics"). It may be a good album because it has some of the best productions of his career, usually amped-up electro-disco from the duo Soul Mekanik or goofy hip-hop soul from Mark Ronson (which makes him come across as Justin Timberlake at some points and Gnarls Barkley at others). It's certainly a good record in comparison to its two predecessors, which suffered from a lack of vitality. (For example, while 2005's Intensive Care desultorily attempted to rewrite the Human League's "Louise," Rudebox simply covers the song, with much more feeling.) Compared to Escapology and Intensive Care, Rudebox is not only loose and fun but, for the first time in Williams' career, receptive to outside help; aside from the producers, Lily Allen and the Pet Shop Boys make appearances, and Robbie covers songs from Manu Chao, Lewis Taylor, Stephen Duffy, and the indie band My Robot Friend. Not that the record is perfect; in fact, it has a few of the most embarrassing moments in Williams' career. The lyrics occasionally devolve into hip-hop nonsense ("Got no strings, but I think with my ding-a-ling/Wu-Tang with the bling-bling, sing a song of Sing Sing"). "The 80s" is even worse, a nostalgic but monotone rap that oddly balances adolescent trauma and pop culture ("Auntie Jo died of cancer/God didn't have an answer/Rhythm was a dancer"). Still, the next track after "The 80s" is "The 90s," a surprisingly bewitching chronicle of his boy-band years from 1990 to 1995. The fact remains that every track here is better and more interesting than anything from the previous two LPs, despite the occasional embarrassing couplet or misguided musical idea.
by John Bush
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