It is now over twenty-five years since Robbie Williams tumbled out of the boy band Take That into a solo career that no one, not even him, could yet quite imagine. What has happened since then…well, part of the story can be told through the swagger of sales and statistics: over 85 million albums sold around the world; thirteen UK number one albums (the most for any solo artist, equalled only by Elvis Presley); fourteen number one singles; the most concert tickets sold in a day (1.6 million on November 19, 2005); the record-breaking three nights at Knebworth to 375,000 people in 2003; the parallel grand successes of his swing albums and of a reconvened Take That (upon release in 2010, the Progress album became the fastest selling album of the twenty-first century, and the subsequent tour was the biggest-selling British tour ever); an unprecedented and unmatched 18 Brit awards; the Christmas album, the X-Factor judging, the Royal Shakespeare Company musical The Boy In The Dress, Soccer Aid, numerous collaborations in music, art, radio, books, fashion, TV and film, and on and on and on…
But that’s only a small part of the whole wild journey, one on which XXV offers a fresh and illuminating perspective. Here are songs from across these twenty-five years – the oldest, “Angels”, emerging from only his second writing session with Guy Chambers at Chambers’ North London flat; the newest, “Lost”, emerging unexpectedly out of the ether one evening in Wiltshire last November. Aside from the most recent of them, these are songs that are now being revisited. Or, as Robbie might more precisely phrase it, “re-worked, re-imagined, and re-loved.”
Part of this act of reimagination and re-loving is a musical one. Each song has been orchestrated – by Jules Buckley, Guy Chambers and Steve Sidwell – with the results recorded in the Netherlands by the acclaimed Metropole Orkest. But with Robbie also singing and reapproaching them anew – or, as he puts it, “competing on a lot of the tracks with a very younger me” – he could both get a clearer sense of who he had once been and bring to the pageant all the experience of who he now is. “What I discovered,” he says, “going back into these songs, is that - if I took myself out of them, because I have a problematic critical mind about everything that I ever do and everything that I ever am - if I listened to them objectively, I could really enjoy them and be really proud of them.” In this moment of reoccupying them and building on what was already there, that was what he was able to do. “I don't know if it's an actual coming to terms with the past,” he says, “but it's definitely a massive full stop on it.”
By disposition, it’s not generally the Robbie Williams way to linger too long on what has been. “I am always constantly looking forward,” he points out. But in this unusual situation, where he found himself forcing his present and his past to collide, he was able to see anew something of what had happened, and of the trajectory which has led him here. “The person at the beginning of that journey was living a very high-octane life,” he reflects. “Didn't want the party to end. I was young, naive, and delusional. But it turns out that my delusion sort of manifested in the most positive of ways.”
One triumphant example is the early song, strikingly revisited here, perhaps most directly describing what was taking place in his life as this solo journey began: “No Regrets”. “When I left Take That,” he remembers, “I was very, very angry about how I was treated. There was a lot of unfinished business, and there was a lot of naive, juvenile aggression. My voice was literally being taken away, and that made me incredibly angry. Because whether it be delusion or not - it turns out it wasn't - I thought that I was capable of doing what I've since done.” In its original version, the song didn’t hold back. “It was a different time than it is now,” he says. “The 90s was a time to sort of be vitriolic. You kind of got points for being cruel, points for having spats with people publicly. Very different times.”
The new version doesn’t hold back either, but in a different way. Though all but one word in XXV’s “No Regrets” are the same as before, the song, like many of these re-loved offspring, has found a new dimension. “I really love what Jules Buckley did with it,” says Robbie. “He turned it into a James Bond kind of song. It's given it darkness, and it’s given it the energy that I can sit with, and sit in, and feel comfortable in.” And then there is that changed word. “The last line is, 'I guess the love we once had is officially...',” Robbie explains. “And I used to say ‘…dead’. And I feel as though all those words that went unsaid have now been said, and there is a much kinder, safer place in my heart for Gary Barlow, who I love. I always did. That's why it hurt so much.” The song’s final word is now “…alive”. “’I guess the love that we once had is now alive’,” Robbie repeats. “Because it is.”
On the album sleeve, Robbie sits naked. “It’s Rodin: The Thinker,” he says. “Except it’s Me: The Thinker-ish.” He posed like that because, any higher concerns aside, when needs be that’s the kind of thing he does: “I got up on a plinth and spent a few hours having my photograph taken while 23 strangers looked at me in the nude.”
Back down off his plinth, there is plenty of looking-forward going on his life. There is a still-shrouded-in-secrecy film project directed by The Greatest Showman’s Michael Gracey (“weird and wonderful,” Robbie whispers); there are, as ever, a diverse range of music projects underway which he will unveil whenever he sees fit; there is his visual art (a first exhibition of his work, in collaboration with Ed Godrich, was showed in London in May 2022); and there are an ever-multiplying range of other creative schemes. And, after the triumphant Homecoming show in Stoke in June 2022, he has a bundle of pent-up energy brimming over, ready to play all the shows un-played and sing all the songs un-sung in the pandemic years, beginning with the XXV tour in October. “This is my lot for life,” he says, “and I've got no plans to stop it anytime soon. I love my job, what I've been given and the opportunities that I have to create. And I’m still very ambitious”
Presumably it would make sense were there, in another twenty-five years, an album - or whatever equivalent the future allows - called L.
“I hope there'll be a record called L,” Robbie concurs. “If I'm still knocking about, I think I could make it to then. But whatever I do from now till L is out, it has to be interesting and fun and different.” As ever, there is a glint in his eye. “I already have a few thoughts up my sleeve,’ he promises, “how to make that happen.”
In July 2023, Robbie Williams is back to meet his Greek audience and offer a one of a kind performance like he always does!