- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Robbie Williams
Reality Killed the Video Star

Robbie Williams is, essentially, the Justin Timberlake of Britain. After achieving fame as a collaborator with the boy band Take That, he embarked on a solo career that took him to the heights of global renown.

How famous is he?

Well, his commercial success across most of the music-buying world is such that kicking off a review of a new Williams record with a thumbnail bio would be unnecessary outside the United States. All seven of Mr. Williams’ previous studio releases reached No. 1 in the United Kingdom, across Europe and pretty much everywhere else they tally album sales.

Yet North Americans seem peculiarly resistant to his pop charms. He’s not exactly known on these shores — he’s had plenty of TV and radio exposure and scored decent sales on a few albums — but he’s completely eclipsed by other recent U.K. exports, including Radiohead, Oasis, Coldplay and Arctic Monkeys. The easy — and likely true — explanation is that these bands presented innovative pop styles that expanded the musical consciousness of American listeners. That is to say that Mr. Williams failed to win an American audience because he lacks originality.

This deficiency is in evidence on his latest album, “Reality Killed the Video Star.” (The title is borrowed from producer Trevor Horn, whose band the Buggles had a hit with “Video Killed the Radio Star.”) A mishmash of pop themes and bleary techno sounds, the album smacks of creative exhaustion.

What’s missing, too, is the relentless energy that made Mr. Williams’ songs dance-club favorites. Some, such as “Blasphemy,” trade in silly puns. It’s a bit of reheated Coldplay, all minor-key piano and strings, pitched as a kind of object lesson about the destructive power of unkind words. He sings, “What’s so great about the Great Depression?/ Was it a blast for you/ Because it’s blasphemy.”

Mr. Williams’ own recent career woes are the subject of “Last Days of Disco.” His 2006 album “Rudebox” drew some tepid reviews and a bit of a drop-off from the usual mega-platinum sales. The track opens with a riff that’s just a few notes off from the classic electronic beat that kicks of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” Lyrically, Mr. Williams cribs from Elvis Presley, singing, “Don’t call it a comeback/ Look what I invented here/ I thought it was easy.” For all the borrowing, it’s probably the most listenable track on the album. By comparison, the Elton John-inspired treacle of the opening track, “Morning Son,” is hard to get through.

“Reality Killed the Video Star” won’t offer the curious listener many clues to Mr. Williams’ global pop celebrity. Instead, give a listen to his solo debut, “Life Thru a Lens” or 2000’s “Sing When You’re Winning” for a sense of the insouciant, upbeat glee that gave him star power.

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