Recorded with an 18-piece band in Frank Sinatra's old stomping ground, the Capitol Records Studio in LA, Swing When You’re Winning is a collection of Rat Pack standards and new material features plenty of guest collaborations, such as the much-hyped Nicole Kidman effort on Sinatra's "Something Stupid".
There are few genuine pop stars without at least a couple of skeletons in the closet, and in Robbie Williams’ abode there can be no doubt that this questionable big-band affair sits, collecting dust, alongside a few other career missteps.
Not that Swing When You’re Winning – the title a play on Williams’ preceding studio album ‘proper’ – didn’t perform well commercially, with this collection reaching number one and also spawning a chart-topping single, the Nicole Kidman duet Somethin’ Stupid. But the singer’s voice simply can’t compete with the scale of the music around him, and straightforward versions of Mack the Knife, Ain’t That a Kick in the Head and Mr Bojangles are little more than weak imitations of Williams’ idols.
Unveiled at perhaps the peak of his chest-puffed braggadocio – a few months after its release he would sign an £80 million deal with EMI – Swing When You’re Winning is the kind of record Williams had always dreamed of making. Hugely enamoured with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, he knocked this set out in just two weeks, clearly fuelled by a true enthusiasm for the material at hand. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, and in hindsight Swing… is a blip in Williams’ career, its glossy gooiness a perfect metaphor for the man’s self-celebratory outward appearance of the time.
The orchestra swells and peaks just as it should, hitting all the prerequisite marks for material like this, but Williams’ performance seems detached, his lust for the spotlight working against him. The most effectively attention-grabbing number is actually the one original piece, I Will Talk and Hollywood Will Listen which, while bristling with sweeping strings, underplays the potential for bombast to come across as peculiarly affecting. Perhaps with more of himself invested in the piece, however weak the lyrics, Williams cared enough about the song to do it justice.
Elsewhere, he assumes a role, playing a character whose shoes he could never quite fit into. Sometimes it’s tolerable, but mostly forgettable. Swing… is never a complete disaster, each song meeting a rudimentary level of quality, but there’s nothing to tempt the listener back for more – especially when the most pressing urge come the record’s climax is to investigate the classic versions of cuts like Beyond the Sea, best performed by the late Bobby Darin. --Mike Diver
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