When Take That broke up back in 1996, Robbie Williams was considered the least likely to be successful, though within a year he eclipsed his bandmates (most notably Gary Barlow) and shot to superstardom. Fast forward to 2006, however, and Robbie Williams is seen as having fizzled out, while Take That's reunion without him proves startlingly successful. Now, in 2009, here comes Williams' long awaited new album, touted as a comeback by fans (despite the fact that he says, "Don't call it a comeback" on The Last Days of Disco... you hear that, Robbie? DEFIANCE). It's not that the album doesn't have any good moments, because it certainly does; it's just that they're vastly outnumbered by the bad ones. Back in July, Williams promised that his new album would be "a killer: old Robbie, new Robbie and a Robbie that neither of us have met," though really the only thing Reality Killed the Video Star delivers on is old Robbie presented in a tired fashion.
The big problem with Reality Killed the Video star is that just about everything presented has been done better, namely by Williams himself. Do You Mind? recalls the britpop flavor of his first two records, but it doesn't have any of the charisma or energy that made Let Me Entertain You or even Ego a Go Go work so well, and as a result it just sounds bland and boring. The opening Morning Sun and Starstruck are colorless reminders of Williams' post-Escapology foray into adult alternative, as well as the ridiculously maudlin piano backing the groan-inducing word play of Blasphemy ("Is it a blast for you? 'Cause it's BLASPHEMY"). Lead single Bodies sounds as though it's striving for a soaring, captivating sound a la Millennium or Rock DJ, but it stalls, and just doesn't quite make it. The chorus is catchy enough, and the lyrics about focus on image versus focus on spirituality are thought provoking to be sure, but the hooks are so scant that the song never truly takes off. There is even a reminder of Swing When You're Winning, courtesy of the contrived yet effective segue Somewhere, which is easily one of the stronger pieces here.
As was mentioned before, there are some hidden gems to be found in this set; You Know Me is probably the lone track in the set that morphs the adult alternative sound into something compelling. Difficult for Weirdos is a throbbing bit of electronic dance with a great flow and beat far superior to that of Bodies, not to mention its lack of pretense and the fact that it just sounds so damn fun. It's followed by Superblind, a beautifully sung slice of light psychedelia that develops toward a wonderful climax. The closing pair of Won't Do That and the Morning Sun reprise is also better than the rest of the album, but at this point it's a classic case of too little, too late.
The fact that the best songs on Reality Killed the Video Star are not just so by comparison, but genuinely GOOD shows that Robbie Williams isn't a man out of ideas, just perhaps direction or inspiration. His 2009 effort isn't exactly a failure, but given its hype one would've expected a masterful return to form; here we get a postured mess sprinkled with a few songs good enough to remind us of his abilities. Disappointing, but still worth hearing.