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Album review: Robbie Williams' 'Reality Killed the Video Star'

November 9, 2009 |  5:43 pm
ROBBIE_WILLIAMS_240 "This is a song full of metaphors," Robbie Williams sneers over some dusted-off mid-1970s guitar crunch in the party anthem "Do You Mind," which comes right in the middle of this bullishly diverse album. What song isn't? Dwelling on the obvious is an easy pop star move, but the witty Mr. Williams is usually sharper than that.

Perhaps he's decided that being obvious is his only hope. The attitudinal crooner and former boy band star remains a novelty stateside, though in England he's basically Justin Timberlake minus the grace. Williams' eighth studio effort is a full-body flex matching buttery ballads with laser-flecked dance tracks and arch updates from the music hall; it's meant to both resurrect his flagging career at home and to finally capture America, now that younger stars like Katy Perry have made Williams' brand of power camp acceptable here.

To that end, "Reality" is all about metaphors, puns and other brilliant turns of phrase, from the title that nods to the old Buggles hit by its producer, Trevor Horn, to the rapper-like rhymes ("it's not a blast for me, it's blasphemy") and non sequiturs ("the hairdo of the godhead") scattered throughout its meditations of fame, age and noncommittal romance. Whether upbeat and sci-fi mystical or orchestrated and jaded, these songs showcase the nasally soulful Williams as an irresistibly smart, cosmopolitan manchild of the overly wired world.

He's always written about fame's fun and peril, but with "Reality," Williams focuses hard on the out-of-body experience of the everyday. "I've got no problem with the physical minimal real life," he croons, slightly Auto-tuned, in the Pet Shop Boys homage "Starstruck." But that's a lie.

Reclaiming Williams' spot in the line of self-skewering Brit wits that runs from Noel Coward to Ricky Gervais, "Reality" covers much musical ground while sticking to its main point: that for both the celebrity and the average bloke on date night, life is one big show full of flubbed lines and fumbled choreography.

Horn's production is gorgeous, and Williams benefits greatly from the gifts of the producer's longtime team, including the arranger Anne Dudley. "Reality" unfolds with deliberate variety -- its calculated pleasures won't appeal to those seeking earnest emotion or even slightly ragged sounds. Like the verbal tricks he loves to employ, the appeal of Robbie Williams might still be too tricky to be truly universal. But this album proves that he is a great brain teaser.

-- Ann Powers

Robbie Williams

"Reality Killed the Video Star"
Virgin Records
Three stars (Out of four)