This week ten years ago (9th November 2009), Robbie Williams’ eighth solo album, Reality Killed the Video Star, was released on music label Virgin Records. Arriving three years after the release of his album Rudebox, fans and critics alike were keen to see what the pop superstar would come up with next.
Robbie Williams has had – much to the dismay of his naysayers – a career that has gone from strength to strength. From his debut release, 1997’s Life Thru a Lens, to the glorious The Heavy Entertainment Show of 2016, he’s made an unusual and striking mark on the music world. Many pop stars land on the music scene with huge impact, but it is rarer for a singer – at least in modern times – to stay at the top of their game, in an industry always craving to move onto the “next big thing.” The pop industry can be a fickle one.
Williams soon broke through the scepticism of critics by building for himself an outstanding career that rapidly set him apart from his male counterparts. Many would have struggled when removed from the huge success of one of the world’s biggest pop bands – Take That – yet Williams appeared to take the transition with ease (at least on the face of it), taking to the stage for his own successful world tours with the ownership and charisma of a soul who had been doing it for a lifetime.
It seemed that Robbie could do no wrong, notching an impressive string of hit singles and million-selling albums across the globe and with it, smashing to pieces any notion that he was going to simply melt away after his departure from Take That.
After 2006’s Rudebox was thrown into the world and met with mixed reactions (though with largely favourable responses by critics, it’s worth noting), his audience wondered what would come next. After a decade long stint at being the most reliable hit maker of the late 90s/early 00s, it is possible that both Williams and his label felt that a lot was riding on the success of his next release.
Reality Killed the Video Star – Or Did It?
Reality Killed the Video Star finally landed in the sonic stratosphere on 9th November 2009. It was an album unlike anything he had done before; the album possessed an almost “classic” feel. There appeared to be a musical revelation in the tracks, of a more reflective and emotionally raw Williams, the songs exposing the sensitivity and challenges of his life and experiences at the time.
Nobody could have predicted exactly how his audience would have reacted to the release, yet it was a huge success upon completion: on its first day in the world, the album sold a staggering 85,000 copies, sending it straight to number 2 in the charts (and missing the coveted number 1 position very narrowly – only 1,500 less than the top spot at the time). It did, however, reach number 1 in the European album charts, where it stayed at the top for two weeks. In 2010, the album was certified as triple platinum by the British Phonographic Industry, after the album had sold a whopping 90,000 copies. Singles from the album included Bodies, You Know Me and Morning Sun.
It’s not that Robbie Williams’ career had not been diverse before – there was enough flavour of sound and energy in his back catalogue to make his career anything but predictable – yet there was something strikingly unique about Reality Killed the Video Star. Produced by Trevor Horn, the album marked what came across as a new openness and maturity for Williams as a songwriter. It was an album of layers: emotional, classy, edgy, sincere and beautiful.
At times experimental sounding, there was a depth to the musical project that seemed to take some of his supporters by surprise. Some listeners compared the music to the style of George Michael, yet if there was truth to this claim at all, it was only in hints and waves, for Williams’ album was entirely his own, marked as it was by his own personal lyrics and rich vocal delivery. The album was an eclectic mix of classy, stringed ballads and electro-pop tracks, the experience of listening to it like a roller-coaster – the low and quiet moments as satisfying as the catchy highs.
Songs such as Superblind offer listeners a classical sounding side to Williams, the track being one of introversion that has Williams asking what it all means, and where his life and career are heading in all the madness. The monumental pressures he faced (and still faces) in getting on stage, or of delivering the hits, must have at times made him ponder his future and where it might lead him. “Here’s to the next century,” he smoothly sings, “what will they think when they think about me?”
With Morning Sun – the song which perfectly opens the album like the dawn of a new day in the singer’s world – offers glimpses of a new style for the singer and sets the tone of the album beautifully. Again, the lyrics suggest deep searching and quests for meaning. “The morning brings a mystery, the evening makes it history,” he sings. “You don’t see anything, not even love, not anything, the night could take the man from you, a sense of wonder overdue…”
The track Deceptacon – a song that Williams is said to have written when he was exploring the possibility of extraterrestrial life – seems to portray a haunting and soulful search from the singer. There appears to be a yearning, both lyrically and in the vocal delivery from Williams, as he tries to find and reach the one that is missing from his life. “We stand in position, though someody’s missing, and that somebody’s you,” he sings,“but what can I do?”
The song almost feels like it takes the listener stargazing – musically. A sense of smallness and of being in awe of the world and the bigger questions it arouses in us. If there was any significance to the artist exploring the night skies, could it be that he had reached the climax, musically, and yet knew somehow there might be more to life beyond all of the chaos here on earth? It’s impossible to say, yet all analysing aside, Deceptacon is a stunning track, beautiful in and of itself.
Blasphemy (admittedly one of this writer’s favourite songs on the album) is an outstanding track, the vocal delivery by Williams immensely haunting, the sweeping instruments making an enchanting experience for listeners. This song allows the artist to shine, and as a result the track is a blinding star amongst the other gems it is surrounded by.
The track Won’t Do That has an almost old-school feel, a song that wouldn’t be out of place in an older era, such as the vintage tracks birthed in Motown. One can easily imagine, listening to the lilt and waltz of the track, that it was written decades back… Robbie Williams perhaps dictating it from a muse of long-ago. One can almost imagine a grainy, black and white video to accompany the song, Williams suited up, and the fuzz and static of a vinyl record as the song plays – there’s simply something very “retro” about it.
The hits of the album, such as Bodies and You Know Me are, in a way, “classic” sounding Robbie. The videos and style of the single tracks arrive to the listener in more familiar territory, yet the songs are unforgettable with a beauty of their own, the kind of solid hits for which Robbie Williams has become known, cherished and loved for.
Back when it was released, 10 years ago, the album was met with many positive reviews and gratifying sales. This isn’t necessarily always the mark of a great album, but in this instance, Reality Killed the Video Star deserved every sale, hit and accolade it received. As a project, it offered his fans insight to another side of the star, showing them that although his charisma, confidence and tongue-in-cheek style was a real part of him and his performance, he also housed a deep soul that felt inspired, vulnerable, reflective and as full of questions as any other fellow traveller on this journey in life. His success may have set him apart, but he still felt the troubles of life as much as those around him – indeed, this truth seems to have flavoured much of the album itself.
It is a testament to the album’s strength that it sounds just as fresh today as it did ten years previous. In November this year, Williams will release a collection of Christmas songs and his fans will surely enjoy the artist’s take on new and old seasonal tracks. Robbie Williams continues growing as an artist and creating outstanding work – it will be fascinating to see where he takes things next.
Robbie Williams’ new album, The Christmas Present, will be released November 22nd.
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