“I’ve always been scared to try out different things and I think on this album I’ve lost the fear of where I should be in my head as a populist artist. It means I can just go and make wonky pop , which is all I wanted to do anyway.”
Robbie Williams in Music Week, September 2006
When Robbie spoke to music industry bible Music Week about his new album Rudebox before it was released, did he have any idea of the storm of controversy he was about to unleash? We reckon he might. But whether or not he already knew that his upcoming 16-track electro-pop mash-up would set tongues wagging, teeth gnashing and jaws dropping with equal intensity, the press didn’t have a clue. With Rudebox, Robbie wrong-footed everyone. And whether reviewers reacted with tributes or tantrums, Rudebox was an album no-one could ignore.
But why not? Music Week summed it up: “It’s a brave artist who steps out of their comfort zone and attempts to do something truly new, so credit is due to Robbie Williams for being different.” Robbie Williams being different? The nerve of it, came the response. When you’ve been around for over ten years, headlined at Knebworth and you’re releasing your ninth album, as an artist you are public property. Frankly, you’re not allowed to be different. But as Robbie explains in Music Week “this is me. This is what I’ve been trying to make for eight albums.’
So what made Rudebox so different? Gone were the stadium anthems and terrace-chant choruses, and in came a raft of edgy producers, dancefloor beats, and Robbie rapping. “Where’s Angels?” you could almost hear some reviewers bellow.
The first person to take umbrage at the ‘new’ Robbie was The Sun’s gossip diva and self-confessed Robbie fan, Victoria Newton. Deeply offended, she branded the single Rudebox the “worst record I’ve ever heard’’, before hurriedly asserting her position as a trail-blazing arbiter of taste by saying “no doubt Robbie will be so incensed at this review that he will slap a ban on me being sent the rest of the album ahead of its release.”
And with that, the floodgates opened: “Superstar’s folly,” chided the Mail On Sunday, “just couldn’t be bothered” scolded the Evening Standard, “spectacularly wrong” declared the FT and “a sketchy mix… confused,” grumbled Q. Crumbs.
As the reviews rolled in the first single Rudebox peaked at number four, the number one slot irksomely out of reach. It was all the proof nay-sayers needed to start hammering nails into Robbie’s career. Odd then, that Rudebox rocketed to the top of the album charts on its first week of release and elbowed the competition out the way in almost 20 countries. This, as Robbie pocketed a Best International Pop Artist gong at the MTV Latin awards, and thundered towards the end of his record-breaking Close Encounters 2006 world. So much for a faltering career.
And beneath it all, there was a growing undeniable buzz that must have fizzed away in some reviewers ears like tinnitus. It was the hum of praise for Rudebox, and it came from some surprising corners. Some people liked the album. Others loved it. Respected dance music magazine DJmag called the album ‘an infectious piece of electronic pop’ and recommended that its knowledgeable, fussy readers ‘listen without prejudice, it really works. Will people recognise Rudebox for what it is, a really good electronic pop album?”.
“The tunes are all accomplished and well polished, and the hooks are big enough to keep the crowds at stadium gigs bellowing along,” wrote Time Out approvingly. “Album of the week” awarded The Observer, saying: “Proper fans of Robbie’s, those who spark up lighters for Angels, will beg to differ, but some of us would rather listen to Bongo Bong on endless repeat than ever hear Angels again.” And respected critics Caitlin Moran and David Quantick in Word magazine named it an album of the year.
As Music Week said, it’s a brave thing to please yourself when you are releasing your ninth album. Having the guts to do this, as much as the sound of the album itself, also won Robbie approval. “You have to admire his daring,” said The Sun’s weekend reviews section, despite Ma Newton’s earlier scolding. “Robbie deserves a pat on the back for finally rounding up some cool-name co-writers and producers.”
Many reviewers also recognised that it might not be ‘cool’ to admit to liking a Robbie album, but it would be churlish to reject Rudebox simply because it came from him.”Your least favourite popstar's gone electro and it's - whisper it – good,” admitted indie bible NME, in an unexpected glowing review. “Rudebox is the best thing he's ever put his name to… It’s not 'Robbie Williams the serious artiste', but it is an amazing pop album.”
And there was more to come. The famously hard-to-please ‘pink’ press were glowing too. “Here comes the Robbie Williams album that isn’t a Robbie Williams album. The only album you should think about buying,” cheered Boyz. “Intriguing” and “insanely catchy” cooed Gay Times.
As the reviews flooded in a pattern emerged. Gay press, dance mags and left-leaning publications such as The Observer and Time Out, predominantly, loved Rudebox – an electro/disco pop album. No wonder the scorn from middle-aged England burned holes through the newsprint – they were grumpy they couldn’t bop to these new-fangled electro beats.
And electro and disco scream camp – heck he’s even got the Pet Shop Boys on there – so presumably those stuffy middle-England newspapers worked themselves into a terribly heterosexual tizzy too. As the Daily Mail gave it one out of ten and The Express curtly dismissed Rudebox as something “only his campest of fans will approve” you could almost here those journalists backing themselves up against a wall for safety.
“It’s dangerous, he’s dangerous,” asserted former journalist and Robbie’s tour DJ Chris Coco. “He’s the first artist of his stature to utilise these ideas and it really works.” Well he would say that. But the column inches back him up. “It remains to be seen if it will be his undoing with the mainstream and those tabloid hacks. But it seems, musically at least, he's just getting started,” wrote the NME. “If you leave your preconceptions at the door, you might just love it.”
So this was the nub – Rudebox might alienate old fans, but win new ones: new fans with advanced musical tastes who weren’t afraid to take listening risks. Rudebox doesn’t mean that Robbie’s ungratefully abandoned his old fans (set list from Close Encounters reads like a greatest hits). But it does mean that Robbie isn’t prepared to churn out the same old same old just to keep the peace. This is the sound of an artist proving he’s still interested, still up for it. Whether it works or not is neither here nor there. No-one bats an eyelid when Madonna hires fashionable help for a new album, so why should they with Robbie? And when that help includes credible producers such as Mark Ronson, Joey Negro or Soul Mekanik, there’s really nothing to argue with.
As Robbie admitted to Music Week: “This has taken a long time, but I think it’s all to do with confidence, being in my thirties and pleasing myself.” Rudebox, Attitude predicted “might disappoint fans and satisfy no-one. But perhaps in time it will become seen as a creative breakthrough.” For Robbie, at least, it already is.
Words by Jane Fitz-Gerald