Following his second stint with Take That, Robbie Williams is back in his natural habitat: the limelight. Later this month he plays three nights at the O2 Arena. Tomorrow he not only releases a new album, he also switches on the Oxford Street Christmas lights (sponsored by Marmite). Since the birth of his first child six weeks ago, he has been in the papers almost every day.
When he shared a sweet picture of himself and his daughter Teddy with his million-strong Twitter following, he added the caption: “Daddy’s second nappy change...Teddy’s second day on the planet.” So he is as doting as any other new dad, but look who got first mention.
The new album, his first in three years, comes with a telling quote. “After the Take That reunion — a busman’s holiday, a break from my career which re-energised me in many, many ways — I wanted to come back with a massive solo album.”
Williams has always had two main modes, triumphal and confessional — both, as so often, symptoms of self-doubt.
There’s no mistaking which side of him is pushing to the front here: more than a decade after Sing When You re Winning and Swing When You re Winning, he brings us Take The Crown. The only nod to the passing years is that he refrained from calling it Keep The Crown.
Musically, it’s no return to former glories. The first sound you hear, on a track named Be A Boy, is a shiny synthesiser, chiming out as if it was 1985.
The first vocal is a distant woohooh, such as you might hear if you were driving through Wembley when a greying boy band were playing there. The tone is set for an album that veers between Take That lite and anonymous ’80s synth-pop.
“I want to dominate the charts,” Williams told Radio 1 listeners recently. “I want to take on the world. I want to be a top pop star.” And given the current shortage of solo male stars, he may well get what he wants.
The first single, Candy, released last Monday, is a jaunty little thing that allows him to saunter through the video playing the clown and flirting with a much younger woman, played by Kaya Scodelario from Skins.
The song is co-written by Gary Barlow, yet it feels more like an album track by Madness.
You can see why it was chosen as a single: most of these songs are even thinner. Hunting For You is yet another look at Williams’ own addictive tendencies, not half as satisfying as Come Undone. “All That I Want is an up-tempo love song, a stab at a big radio hit, with a melody that goes through the motions.”
Songs such as these, even more than good ones, require a singer who means business and adds depth. Williams just sounds as if he means showbusiness. The backing tracks are so drab, it’s like being at one of those arena gigs where you can’t make out any musicians.
Two tracks manage to rise above the mediocrity: Different, an anthem with enough heart to rub shoulders with the old hits at the O2; and Losers, a duet with the folk-rocker Lissie in which Williams discusses his own competitiveness — and recants.
It’s surely a passing phase rather than a personal statement, but the song, a simple acoustic ballad that swells into a stadium swayalong, brings much-needed warmth.