Top critical review
the album consisted entirely of covers pertaining to the Great American Song Book
23 September 2014
November 2001 saw the definitive swing album of all time: Swing When You’re Winning by Robbie Williams. Other than one track, the album consisted entirely of covers pertaining to the Great American Song Book. The once-Take-That-star’s shift in musical direction revolutionised many classic swing songs, and his versions are more often than not the ones people first think of now. The album was promoted almost in its entirety in the best performance Robbie has ever given – Live At The Albert Hall (the Blu-Ray stands proudly on my shelf next to my favourite films). It was an important time for Robbie fans and fans of music generally, and could be considered his absolute musical peak (although he did go on to write Escapology, which many argue is his best album too – it all depends what mood you’re in). Swing When You’re Winning was critically successful and is his best-selling album to date, so it was inevitable that he would do a follow-up record at some point or another. Enter Swings Both Ways.
I was made-up when the new album was announced (2 weeks after his last tour finished – how does he fit it in!?). I wasn’t just pleased because I loved Swing When You’re Winning, but because it seemed the next logical next step: Robbie has matured. His voice is deeper, perfectly suited to swing music. I’m not saying there was anything wrong with his last album Take The Crown, because there were some gems on there (see Different), but the days of being a young, current pop star are unfortunately behind him. Try as he might, it makes sense for him to move on to something a little more mature and refined, especially considering most of his audience these days are aged thirty and above anyway.
Sadly, the album isn’t in the same league as Swing When You’re Winning. Is that because this time round, there are more original songs? No. This is the first big collaboration since Escapology that Robbie has had with Guy Chambers (who co-wrote all his famous songs), and some of their new material here is actually very good. Perhaps it’s the covers themselves that are lacking, as other than Puttin’ On The Ritz there are no real legendary songs being remastered as there were plenty of last time. The main problem really is that the album feels very inconsistent. Not only does it keep jumping from songs written this year to half a century ago and back again, but to put it bluntly: some are good, and some are not.
Thankfully, in the age of iTunes, you don’t have to buy the whole thing. This walk through of each track individually may help you decide which to get. Click the name of each song to listen to it all the way through.
1) Shine My Shoes
Perhaps “Haters Gonna Hate” would have been a better title? The opening track is an “up yours” to anyone who doesn’t like Robbie Williams. As with his previous “smug” songs (see Handsome Man), we can take the self-confidence with a pinch of salt; he can’t be serious about the fact that people should shine his shoes… can he? A line I do have an issue with is “I made it easy to be me so yeah it’s easy to be me” – yes he has clearly worked hard through his career, but he was still very lucky to be one of the few talented people to have been found and signed, back in 1990 when Take That were formed. He says that the song was in the spirit of Sammy Davis Jr in The Ratpack biopic where he was dancing against the racists. I would argue that there’s a significant difference between protesting against racism and people who don’t like Robbie Williams music, but it’s a great song nonetheless. His vocals are very strong (covering quite a range) and the big band backings really set a tone for the album from the word go. 8/10
2) Go Gentle
The first single off the album, in this song Robbie offers paternal advice to his baby daughter, Theodora (or “Teddy” as he calls her). It’s quite touching. The lyrics may be a bit generic in places but that’s what makes it so effective – these are the warnings that any father can and would say to their daughter. The song is the epitome of easy listening, especially when the whistling comes in for the middle eight, a feature not used since Mr Bojangles. Whether or not you’ve heard Go Gentle on the radio, I would recommend watching the lyric video. It’s really sweet. 9/10
3) I Wan’na Be Like You (featuring Olly Murs)
The first cover on the album. Apart from a couple of places where I wish they’d stayed a little more faithful to the original Disney tune (the “doo” of “oo-bee-doo” is unsatisfyingly high), the duet has done justice to the best song in The Jungle Book. It really suits their voices, which are easily distinguishable from each other but gel nicely to make a finished song. There is an excellent scat section and the instrumentals are more layered than the original whilst keeping the same classic structure. There are two “facepalm” moments in the song however which do ruin it a bit: firstly, a cringey call and response competition between the two towards the end of the song as to who’s “loving life” more. The other is after the music finishes: Olly tells Robbie he wants to be like him. I was dreading this before I had even clicked play. It’s obvious that some publicist or whoever suggested they sing the song together because it’s very nature fit with the “Olly is an up-and-coming Robbie” image they’ve been hammering down our throats since they first appeared together on the X Factor. When I saw the Take The Crown stadium tour this summer (where Olly supported Robbie), they spooned in a “how does that feel Olly?” “feels great” in in their duet of Kids (1:37). The truth of it is, Olly Murs sells more records now than Robbie Williams. Yes, maybe he can aspire to be like Robbie was back in his heyday, but this whole “learn from the best cheeky chappy” narrative we’re being fed has got to stop. I don’t mind drawing parallels but the song title should have been enough. Just have a look at who cocks up in their first ever duet on the X Factor and who recovers it, and tell me which present-day artist should aspire to be like the other. (Fun fact: Olly sang this song for his first X Factor audition when he was rejected). 7/10
4) Swing Supreme
An artist covering their own song? Have you heard of anything like it? I was dubious when I saw this on the tracklist (if only because I didn’t want him to spoil my memory of Supreme) and yet it works. This could easily be an original song if we didn’t know any better. The verses could probably do with a bit more shaking up, but the chorus in particular seems like it was always intended to be swung – Robbie says that the song has found its home. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the original at all, but it’s nice to have both (plus a recording in French for the completists like me). Whoever’s idea it was to cover the track is a genius. Unless of course it was a “s***
, we’ve run out of songs” moment. 7/10
5) Swings Both Ways (featuring Rufus Wainwright)
I have serious issues with this song. Despite what has been said about its origin, I would suggest (and hope) that the album name came first and then this was created to go with it. The title is turned into the recurring line “everybody swings both ways” which joins the host of other stupid lyrics such as “turn that smile upside down, happy people don’t have sex.” But it’s at the end of each chorus where the song really earns its label as worst track on the album: Both singers exchange observations about how gay the other one is. Perhaps they were trying to recreate the tongue in cheek moment in Me And My Shadow (2:35) on Swing When You’re Winning when Jonathan Wilkes says to Robbie “I won’t tell anyone you’re gay”, but it’s different. It’s 12 years since that album came out, and we’ve learned more since then what’s acceptable and how ridiculing minorities in popular culture can enforce prejudice. You may say I am reading too much into it or that “Rufus Wainwright is gay so it doesn’t matter.” I’m sure it was intended as a droll, flirty commentary on the hidden lives of pop stars, but by adding the words “face it” to an accusation of being gay, the song is enforcing the fact that to be homosexual is undesirable. We should be better than this now. The only thing that stops this song getting a zero is that Rufus Wainwright’s vocals are flawless. It’s just a shame what he’s singing isn’t. 1/10
6) Dream a Little Dream (featuring Lily Allen)
Robbie describes this song as “one of the sweetest ditties ever written”. A ditty is probably the perfect word – it’s a short, simple song. All very nice, but there’s not a lot to it. Yes it’s been covered by Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Doris Day etc., but in my opinion it’s never been particularly memorable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s relaxing, classy, and I enjoy having it on, but after Lily Allen’s first upbeat collaboration with Robbie, this felt somewhat timid. When they’re singing together (which is most of the song) Robbie completely overpowers her and you can’t tell it’s Lily Allen he’s singing with. The John Lewis advert is definitely a better promotion for her return to the music scene. EDIT: The song has been released as the album’s second single and the music video can be viewed here. Lily Allen has now been completely cut from it. 5/10
7) Soda Pop (featuring Michael Bublé)
This really is a great song. It epitomises what big band music is, with a constantly driving build-up towards a huge sound. The tom-tom opening is reminiscent of the one in Bublé’s wonderful Spider-Man cover which he in turn took from Sing Sing Sing by Benny Goodman, and the trumpet solo, which sounds improvised yet very faultless, sits nicely next to the other classic trumpet solos in Robbie’s discography (he hasn’t shied away from them even outside of swing music – see Let Me Entertain You and Me and My Monkey). It is a shame though that the pair sing the choruses entirely in unison – their usually unique singing voices are indistinguishable from one another, which in my opinion is a waste of Michael Bublé, the quintessential contemporary swinger. As good as the song is, I can’t help but think it should either have been rearranged so that they alternated lines (as Robbie and Olly did in Track 3) or used as a solo number instead so that a song more suited to a duet could have used a Bublé guest appearance to its full potential. 8/10
This song is as far away from big band as swing music can be. It is very sparse up until the end, with only twinkly flourishes for the melody to sit on. Robbie’s vocal is completely exposed – there’s no hiding behind trumpets here. For the most part, he delivers, proving when he’s not out of breath from a two-hour gig of dancing around, he’s still an excellent singer. The restrained build-up of the strings towards the end makes the song sound very much like it could have been taken from a musical, and his vocal track really does carry an emotion that could have come from a West End actor, the most youthful he sounds across the whole record. Before I heard the track, I assumed from the title that it would be somehow an attempt at re-doing 2009’s Superblind, but this really is its own song. The lyrics are quite beautiful and make it clear that to be snowblind is to be dazzled as is the case when the world is bright with snow, and this is how he feels about the girl in the song. For the majority of it, we assume that this is his wife Ayda Field (who has had surprisingly few explicit references in his music since their marriage in 2010). Sadly the final line implies that he never ended up with the girl in the song, so it loses some of its personal touch. EDIT: It turns out that this song was actually recorded several years ago which explains why he sounds younger and why it’s about an old lover, not Ayda. 8/10
9) Puttin’ On The Ritz
This song is the one that could have most easily been a part of his original swing album in 2001. A beautifully playful version of a classic jazz song which does not stray too far from the things that made it famous, whilst making it his own at the same time. The last note could do without being so fragmented to end the song with a bit more of a bang, but the rest of it pretty much makes up for it. As most of the Swing When You’re Winning covers did, rather than just attempt to recreate a classic, this transcends the versions before it and stands as a great new song in its own right. I want more like this. 9/10
10) Little Green Apples (featuring Kelly Clarkson)
If Swings Both Ways is the sequel to Swing When You’re Winning, this is the sequel to the main single off that album – Somethin’ Stupid with Nicole Kidman. Little Green Apples somehow manages to incorporate in the same chord structure from that song – it couldn’t be any more obvious that they’re trying to redo it. It’s another lovey dovey duet (although not quite as sickly, thank God), and ultimately quite forgettable. Kelly Clarkson’s vocals, while very listenable, are not distinctive as the other guest artists’ are. This could be any female vocalist, not the compelling singer who gave us Since U Been Gone. Of course, that is most probably due to the fact that the song choice is intended to turn her into Nicole Kidman, not showcase her powerful voice which an upbeat jazz/funk song could have done. 4/10
11) Minnie The Moocher
Absolute sleaze. Robbie performed this during his most recent tour and I hoped then that it may have been a taster of what was to come. Perhaps this was the one he chose first to play live because the call and repetition in the track just begs for participation, even when lying in bed listening to your iPod. I had somehow never actually come across the original by Cab Calloway before I heard this but it doesn’t matter – it’s like it was written for Robbie. He sounds great on it. 8/10
12) If I Only Had A Brain
I can’t listen to this without comparing it to the original in Wizard of Oz. Whereas the song was quite upbeat when it first appeared in 1939, it now feels a bit like walking through custard. I’m a bit unsure why the decision was made to make it less than half the original speed – it doesn’t really make it all that more tragic that the narrator doesn’t have a brain as it’s still in a major key, all it does is make the song a mission to get to the end. If he’d kept it the original speed he could have also done the heart and the nerve, building a new sound in each time, or he could have done a duet with a female singer doing Dorothy’s parts… Anything to make it a bit more interesting. At the moment, it’s just a really slow version of the film motif, best for falling asleep to. And who wants that? 4/10
13) No One Likes A Fat Pop Star
I get what he’s trying to do here – be critical of a shallow industry and a popular opinion of what celebrities should look like, with lines like “showbiz: a single chin game”. But I find it too self-deprecating, especially with the baggage that people have attributed to him (Noel Gallagher’s infamous “fat dancer from Take That” comment springs to mind). To me it comes across as less of a “we should stop judging musicians on what they look like” and more of a “I shouldn’t get this much abuse for being fat,” … even though he isn’t fat. Yes, his weight has fluctuated and he does not look like he did when Swing When You’re Winning hit the shelves, but I don’t think he’s ever really been fat for a significant amount of time in his career. Stocky maybe, but isn’t that just muscle? Who cares. My point is that by suggesting that he is/has been fat, he is saying that anyone with his own build is fat, which could make people even more self-conscious and worsen the situation that he was trying to address in the first place. In terms of sound, the verses are quite well crafted so that the lines flow nicely into each other, but it’s nothing special, and the orchestral choir makes it feel like one of those annoyingly cheesy Disney songs. 3/10
So there it is. I’m amazed that turned out to be as long as it did, but as ever with Robbie Williams, there’s a lot to say. Of course, it’s worth noting that the album has only been out a few days and I may warm more to some of the songs as I keep playing them – his last effort took me over a week to start appreciating properly.
Although I do feel the whole thing is hit-and-miss, the album is very listenable and it is nice to see him return to the genre. Swing music suits his deeper voice as I thought it would, and already I’m itching for a follow-up album with a more consistent set of songs (sadly though I’d place my bets on his next big project being another Take That reunion).