Hark back to November 2001, and following the release of three commercially (and largely critical) solo albums, Robbie Williams had cemented his place in the UK’s music scene. Songwriter of modern-day anthems, showman to rival the greats; the missing link between George Michael and Paul Weller. Undeniably pop, with intelligently written hit after hit, often with a sense of humour, and easily more Frankie Goes To Hollywood than Frank Sinatra, which is why the release of a swing covers album seemed less likely than the release of a rapping-Robbie box of rudeness…
Swing When You’re Winning was a huge success, inviting the parents of the mums and dads who were already fans to see what the fuss was about. Whilst Williams’ first foray into big band territory only featured one new track amongst legendary big band numbers, 2013 follow-up Swings Both Ways, as the title suggests, sees Robbie playing with some new ideas too.
Of course, the classics are there, authentically replicated by both Robbie and the big band behind him. With Puttin’ On The Ritz he’s swinging and winning once more, and clearly as comfortable back in the shiny shoes as he was belting out Let Me Entertain You in platform boots, whilst Minnie The Moocher was already a highlight of this year’s live shows. Other tracks are given a swinging makeover, with a down-tempo Rufus Wainright-esque If I Only Had A Heart being a highlight of the low moments. (Credit where it’s due, Harry Connick Jr. did it first in ‘88.)
Even a vintage Robbie track is given a makeover, with the I Will Survive-sampling Supreme strung with even more strings. It’s not as strong as the original, but is still a clever inclusion, and even more valid considering that this is Robbie’s first album produced (and written, where there are new tracks) with original collaborator Guy Chambers, since their bitter split.
Although Swings‘ new songs do not quite live up to the highs of Escapology, lead-single Go Gently gives hope for a whole new album of Williams/Chambers tracks. When compared to their upbeat numbers (Rock DJ) and anthemic ballads (Angels) it’s a laid back affair, but it features Robbie in his element; as a father (“You don’t have to kiss though”); as a son, paying tribute to the music his father played; as a reacquainted friend; and as the entertainer who, after a few risky years, is back where he belongs.
As with Williams’ first foray on Swing When You’re Winning, guest artists are in abundance on both the covers and the new tracks. Lily Allen (for whom, like all good things, new songs apparently come in threes) guests on a minimal, soundtrack-sounding Dream A Little Dream, while Kelly Clarkson, using only half of her trademark, power-house vocal ability, competes for the role of this album’s Nicole Kidman on Little Green Apples. Robbie takes the role of master on I Wan’na Be Like You, where protégé Olly Murs’ weaker voice is laid bare, however roles are reversed on Soda Pop, where the real king of the swingers – if you will – Michael Bublé joins in on new track, Soda Pop, with a doo-wop sound not a million miles away from Hairspray or Grease.
Devoted fans will be happy with an album that reflects both the serious and more playful sides of Robbie’s personality; however anyone wanting a follow up to his original tribute to big band may be disappointed by the inclusion of jokey tracks that taint the LPs authenticity. The Rufus Wainright-featuring title track is as camp and slapstick as you may have thought possible, while closer No One Likes A Fat Pop Star is Robbie’s most OTT offering to date, and not in a good way.
It’s not that we’re not willing to joke with Robbie, it’s just that there is a time and a place (ideally, after a single, on the b-side.) Fortunately, technological advances since, not only the original swing-era, but also the release of Swing When You’re Winning, mean it’s possible to leave the few duds from the iPod. Robbie’s 10th studio LP (and, possibly, the 1000th UK #1 album) is not his, or the UK’s, best to date; but it’s a worthy addition, and he’s a more-than worthy holder of the honour.
Swings Both Ways is out now; hit the iTunes link below to download: