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The Boston Phoenix Take Two

Robbie Williams lands in America

By Matt Ashare

MAY 17, 1999:  Act One: "History Lessens." Enter Robbie Williams. The 25-year old former teen-beat hitmaker is the hottest British pop export since the Spice Girls and Teletubbies. His story reads like a too-perfect VH-1 "Behind the Music" script -- the meteoric rise to fame as a member of new chaps on the block Take That, followed in rapid succession by an embarrassing and all-too-public (in England, that is) drug- and alcohol-fueled fall from grace, and the redemption of a solo career.

Most of that drama unfolds without creating more than a ripple or two on this side of the pond. Take That have only one big American hit (and how many people really remember "Back for Good"?), so in the wake of Williams's acrimonious departure from the group we really don't get to revel in the in-depth tabloid coverage of his drunken exploits. He then releases two immensely popular solo albums ('97's Life thru a Lens and '98's I've Been Expecting You) that don't even come out in the US. He's become one of those uniquely British phenoms that we Americans have developed a certain wariness of, mainly because so few ever live up to the advance hype. His boy-band history only heightens our suspicions, though it's becoming increasingly clear that if we persist in holding the past conduct of elected officials and entertainers up to a microscope, we're not going be left with any decent pop stars or presidents.

Act Two: "The Ego Trip." Having conquered England and those parts of Europe not currently under NATO attack, Williams sets his sights on America. Capitol Records, home to the Beatles catalogue, sets the stage for yet another British invasion. Magazine features heralding the grand return of the bona fide pop star are procured well in advance. A single with a shamelessly timely theme -- "Millennium" -- is chosen. The best 14 tracks from Williams's two British albums are compiled on one CD -- The Ego Has Landed -- that's set for a May 4 release.

Sure, this is calculated pop (and so was Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and U2's Achtung Baby!). But it bears little resemblance to Take That. There are sturdy rock anthems with powerful guitars that bring to mind the melodicism of the Beatles ("Lazy Days") and the bravado of the early Who ("Let Me Entertain You"), like Oasis only, well, likable. There are reflective piano-laced rock ballads ("Angels" and "She's the One") on which Williams comes across a lot more like the second coming of Elton John than Ben Folds does -- unironically corny yet somehow endearing because he actually sounds as if he meant the words he's singing. There's wry, self-depreciating humor in one of the album's best tracks, the comfortably strummed confessional "Strong," which opens with this verse: "Early morning when I wake up/I look like Kiss but without the make-up/And that's a good line to take it to the bridge." And then there's the vaguely hip-hop beat and the John Barry James Bond sample of "Millennium," a song that may be a bit too self-consciously here and now but still has a great hook.

Act Three: "Paradise Found." It's Friday night. John (no relation) Williams's Star Wars theme blasts into the biggest capacity crowd the Paradise Rock Club has seen since Cheap Trick as Robbie's band take their places on a darkened stage. Flanked by two guitarists, the Ego lands to screams and applause and launches into one of those songs that was written for moments like this: "Let Me Entertain You." Although the album hit stores only four days ago, everyone already knows all the words, and in a nifty little pomo twist, the audience ends up shouting choruses of "Let me entertain you" at the delighted entertainer.

One cynic in the balcony with notebook in hand searches for fissures in the singer's feel-good façade as he raps his way through an amusing cover of the Eminem hit "My Name Is." Williams mugs and banters too much, and his voice isn't as on the money as the CD would suggest, but he's creating a pop spectacle with songs good enough for Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant to endorse (The Ego Has Landed's "No Regrets" features Tennant). It's a little like seeing Alanis Morissette at the Paradise on the first leg of her Jagged Little Pill tour, only this is fun. Williams covers "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by the Clash and ends the show woo-hooing with Blur's "Song 2."

Epilogue: Donnie Wahlberg abruptly leaves his fledgling acting career behind and follows the examples of former New Kids Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre, hoping against hope to be taken seriously as a solo recording artist.

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