With its cheeky non sequiturs and buoyant sing-along melody, “Candy,” the lead single from Take the Crown, suggested that Robbie Williams had returned to the kind of ingratiating pop music that made him one of the world’s biggest music acts. Williams is at his best when he lets his natural roguishness seep into his pop songs, and there’s no mistaking the smirk in his performance on “Candy,” his best single since “Rock DJ.” Unfortunately, the single isn’t indicative of the overall direction Williams takes on Take the Crown, which lapses into the same grandiose self-help talk and too-slick production that’s marred his recent albums.
“Be a Boy” opens with a tacky sax solo that’s less ‘80s than ironic ‘80s circa 2011 before the song turns into an overblown bit of Kings of Leon-style arena-pop, complete with a wordless vocal hook. “Different” is no less overblown, with Williams having to shout the song’s vague promises of change (“This time I’ll be different, I promise you/This time I’ll be special, you know I will”) over a thundering percussion line, full orchestra, and a legion of multi-tracked backing vocals. The arrangements on “Gospel,” “Hunting for You,” and “Into the Silence” are the same kind of fussy, overworked adult-contemporary fodder that made albums like Escapology and Reality Killed the Video Star so forgettable. Williams has claimed in interviews that he set out to write an album of hit singles, so it’s puzzling that so many of the songs here are interchangeable with those on his least relevant albums.
When Williams and producer Jacknife Lee break from the album’s fairly conservative template, Take the Crown manages to capture at least some of the biting self-deprecation and the outsized, effortless pop that Williams has, in the past, done better than just about anyone. “Candy” works because of its skillful incorporation of a dancehall-type brass section into what is basically a playground chant, while the electro-pop flourishes and powerful 4/4 stomp on “All That I Want” would fit well on current radio playlists. “Shit on the Radio,” much like the Nelly Furtado song with the same title, balances its naked ambition for airplay with a certain degree of self-directed derision. Williams’s complicated love-hate relationship with his celebrity has long been one of his trademarks—and one of the main reasons he’s struggled to find an audience in the U.S., where pop stars are typically expected to show gratitude for their fame—and Take the Crown might stand as a stronger “comeback” statement if more of its tracks came across as a bit less desperate to be loved.