Robbie Williams – Swings Both Ways
Buy: Swings Both Ways
In 2001, an incredible twelve years ago, Robbie Williams shifted gear and released a swing album of hits, adapting his previous album title by adding a letter, to create ‘Swing When You’re Winning’, a fifteen-song strong collection that was an ode to one of his favourite eras of music, with just one original song amongst them. More than a decade on and Williams releases a second compilation album that is more split down the middle with covers and original music than his first.
‘Swing Both Ways’ – nudge, nudge, wink, wink – is due to be the 1000th number one album this weekend which is quite appropriate for an album that looks both forward and backward. Coming in at a pleasant 45 minutes (plus 11 minutes of bonus songs and a DVD for deluxe fans) with seven original tunes and six covers (or nine original and seven covers for, yes, deluxe fans) it covers plenty of ground musically all tied under the genre theme.
Opener ‘Shine My Shoes’ is a piano-heavy two-fingers to Robbie’s critics with jaunty verses and a powerful big band chorus. Borrowing a little from Robbie’s own ‘Radio’ two thirds in, it sets the tone for the record and showcases the love for recreating the era of swing. Lead single ‘Go Gentle’ follows, a beautiful ode to Robbie’s baby daughter and what he hopes for her future. Though the chorus proves tricky for the singer live, it’s one of the best songs of the year and comes across as genuinely heartfelt, with the whistle breakdown, brass moments and energetic final stretch adding to the formula.
Teaming up with Robbie’s apparent showman successor Olly Murs on track three, their voices merging into one, Williams’ version of ‘The Jungle Book’ hit ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’ is not a huge departure from the Phil Harris’ original, and lacks his distinctive sound, but it’s a jaunty, swing-enthused number that adds a little bit of freshness, and the deep brass elements make it.
Track four is the best song on the album, a swing version of his 2000 song ‘Supreme’, coming across as much more mature on this record. Though it’s not as enjoyable as the original production the new style suits the piece and the fresh coat of paint works for it.
The title track that follows is possibly one of the weakest on the album. Though Rufus Wainwright bounces off Williams well and the sound of the era is again captured well – it’s very singable, the lyrics are weak and the innuendo unwelcome on an otherwise pleasant album and in one moment borders on the potentially offensive. Though ‘Swings Both Ways’ works as a tongue-in-cheek album title referencing Williams questionable sexuality in his earlier days, the song feels like a step too far and it’s not a particularly exciting track.
‘Dream A Little Dream’, complete with vinyl effect, sees his latest collaboration with Lily Allen who, thankfully, sounds better on here than her Cockney-tinged recent Keane cover for John Lewis or her previous Manu Chao ‘Rudebox’ appearance, proving a welcome balance against Robbie’s vocals and, shockingly, carries the song well and even comes across as quite sexy, getting more of a chance to shine than she did on, say, ‘Never Miss A Beat’ by the Kaiser Chiefs. It’s not the definitive version of the classic, but it’s beautifully recorded and captures the mood well.
New piece ‘Soda Pop’ feels like it’s going to burst into ‘Cuban Pete’ from the Mask but instead forms a trio of collaborations in a row, this time with Michael Bublé, who does this sort of thing as a day job. The tempo changes add a neat change to proceedings but feel a little forced at times, but is perky enough with a bridge that outshines the rest of the piece, but it does grow to become one of the catchier number of the piece.
The atmospheric ‘Snowblind’ feels less like a swing track, more of a cut from his ‘Reality Killed The Video Star’ album, and comes across as the black sheep on the record. It’s an enjoyable enough track with some neat pathos behind the scenes but lacks the genre label that the other numbers do.
The spirited cover of ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’ on track nine returns the quality with a fun, fast-tempoed version that suits Williams’ voice with a strong 30s vibe from the orchestra, though it’s not a huge departure from the original though Williams does help make it his own. ‘Little Green Apples’ is a lesser known cover and Kelly Clarkson is criminally underused, but it’s a welcome addition to the album and it feels good to include a remake that may not be known to many people alongside the swing classics.
‘Minnie the Moocher’, arguably this album’s biggest cover, boasts plenty of Robbie’s trademark swagger though, as with several of the adaptations, there’s not much risk done with the production. But, what isn’t broken shouldn’t be fixed, and the call-and-response works well and Williams feels on top form.
Penultimate number, ‘If I Only Had A Brain’ from the Wizard of Oz, is a slower piece and enjoyable to listen to, the darker tones of the production suiting it and the orchestral nature suits the piece.
The album concludes with an original piece, the nod-to-the-press that is ‘No One Likes A Fat Pop Star’, concluding the album in the same subject area in which it started. Channelling a sad circus clown in its lyrics and music plus a Monty Python-style bombastic light-operatic chorus, this is one of the most daring and enjoyable numbers on the piece, both witty and well produced and is an eccentric way to end the album with some great dramatic side-swipes.
For fans willing to lay a few extra bucks on the table, they get ‘Where There’s Muck’, which opens with the sound of a seagull-heavy rubbish trawler before merging into a jaunty ragga piano number with plenty of heartfelt lyrics and strangled metaphors. The chorus feels a little bit forced and, dare I say, vulgar and it treads the already worn path of fighting back at the critics, but in Williams’ defence you’ve not enjoyed the words ‘Kiss My Ass’ until you’ve heard them over a soaring orchestra. With some awkward tempo changes and a unsubtle nod towards ‘Road To Mandalay’ it’s a mixed platter of delights that suits an appearance as a bonus track.
The cover of the classic ’16 Tons’ is brilliantly done and though the deepness of Williams voice isn’t there compared to that of Tennessee Ernie Ford but it’s still a very successful cover. The deluxe edition finishes with ‘Wedding Bells’, co-written with Gary Barlow, which nails the imagery well and is a sweet, touching way to conclude the extended edition and the longest piece on the album feels like a strong wrapping up of the themes embodied within it.
Deluxe fans also get a DVD which contains a gallery of images and four behind the scenes video, two that are practical music videos showing the recording of two whole tracks, whereas the other two are more snippets. They’re nice clips to expand on the songs and how they were made, with an insight into all the musicians involved and the relationship between Robbie and four of his guest artists, but you’ll have experienced everything in fifteen minutes.
Overall ‘Swings Both Ways’ is a strong album, benefiting from the ear for detail of a Guy Chambers production (plus support from the brilliant Trevor Horn on two of the deluxe numbers) and the swing style is captured well, with the balance of old and new material much more interesting than the first album and showcases how a style can be adapted. Most of the covers are well done and there’s only a couple of weaker tracks on the piece, but as a whole album it’s a delightful journey through swing music and Williams proves to be a talented fan of the genre with a nod towards humour in parts and some personal moments that work best when it’s about his daughter (Go Gentle) and less about the press.