It's been a bit of time since my last endeavour into the AOTW column, but we're making a triumphant return with Robbie Williams' marvellous Intensive Care record from 2005.
In coming back to write this, I wanted to pick an album that meant something; I've done Life Thru A Lens previously and there are tracks on there that have resonated with me for years - Old Before I Die, South Of The Border and so on. But, if you asked me what my favourite record from Mr Williams is, I'd tell you Intensive Care. It marked the first time that Robbie hadn't worked with the eminent Guy Chambers, and instead chose to use Stephen Duffy as producer and indeed assistant songwriter for the entire record. What this led to was a rather different sounding album to the likes of Escapology - to me at least, Intensive Care sounds a little fuller and richer in comparison.
Ghosts that opens this album feels rather triumphant in itself but feels a little more grown-up by comparison to his earlier works. There are sentiments of David Bowie creeping in as the song progresses, largely thanks to its slow build and Williams' crisp delivery, giving it a contemporary yet retro feel simultaneously. An intriguing thing to note is that Ghosts is one of a couple of tracks here greatly inspired by eighties songs such as the Human League's marvellous Louise - a point Williams described as being "about ex-lovers who still yearn for one another". It's clear the exploits of Stephen 'Tintin' Duffy two decades prior rubbed off on his songwriter partner when recording the album.
However, this isn't to say that Intensive Care isn't packed solid with Williams' traditional youthful exuberance. It's a nice blend of the two sides, offering a grown-up sound on half the record, and the usual stick-it-to-the-man rebellion on the other. Tripping, for instance, forms a key part of the latter side. With its drum machine and entrancing synth-driven opening, it does sound a little more playful than other songs here which makes it a personal favourite after all this time.
Other reviews of the entire collection have called it a failed attempt at Williams writing something a little more left-field, but it's his constant obsession with breaking the mould that makes songs like Tripping such a compelling listen. Over the course of his career, he's always been an artist to try things differently. Sometimes it worked, like with Tripping, but with endeavours like the entire Rudebox album from 2006, the less said about them, the better.
Combine this with the following Make Me Pure and it's back to the more melancholic side once again, but this time with added personal touches. The end result with its acoustic guitar-driven backing and occasional inflexions of an electric, when combined with Williams' rolling vocal makes for one of his best performances to date. This may sound like a controversial opinion, but this particular offering has always been one of my preferred listens for the Stoke-born singer's ballads, beating off Angels by quite some margin, and for my thoughts on Advertising Space, you'll have to wait that little bit longer.
Spread Your Wings is a prime example of a Robbie Williams-rubber-stamped classic in the same vein as Old Before I Die and Monsoon previously. Its mid-tempo, foot-tapping sentiments are a perfect fit on this record, and in his own words, is a "lyrical sister to the opening Ghosts", and forms a nice bridge between the two sides to this record - of grown-up ballads and more enthusiastic and heavy stuff. This is largely thanks to the nostalgia of Spread Your Wings with its name-checking of Jocelyn Brown, for example, a prime example of an eighties one-hit-wonder thanks to Somebody Else’s Guy. More integrally though, its descriptions of regret and the dragging-heels spoken vocal in certain sections amplify those feelings to a point that you can't help blend into yourself.
It's at this point where things turn momentarily sour with Advertising Space, a song lauded for being his finest ballad since Angels by some critics. In contrast to its predecessors here, I haven't ever connected as much with a song whose video sees our vocalist dress up as Elvis and laying down on a bed with a pink guitar if memory serves correctly. It's got this unmistakable sound of a single to it, which whilst is no bad thing originally, doesn't fit with the under-the-radar nature to Intensive Care's sound, to me at least. Advertising Space, maybe if it had been on Escapology, would've fitted in a little better, but even with clever songwriting and a full-fat backing present, hasn't ever done all too much for me.
The following Please Don't Die is at least a partial return to form thanks to its strings and clean sound that feels like a lost Howard Jones song, albeit with some slightly more introspective lyrics. It's one of a handful of songs here that rely on elements of religious imagery and the art of dying, to quote a George Harrison song title. There is a certain funkiness to the backing with a Nile-Rodgers style guitar riff which nicely blends with the song's autoharp to create a unique sound that I can't help but adore.
Things are taken up a gear momentarily with Your Gay Friend that moves the goalposts for a lost Green Day song thanks to its prominent low guitar drive and smashing drums that rise and fall nicely with the song's path, especially its bridge. It signals a return to the exuberant side of Williams that was last seen particularly at his Knebworth gigs with him jumping around like a madman.
The lyrics are cleverer than the title may suggest with a story told of loving someone whilst they're within marriage and different levels of commitment between the pair of lovers. Moreover, the religious nods return thanks to lines such as "Hey Lord, forgive us if we're wrong/Make sure that he never hears this song" - perhaps there's an intent to challenge notions of frowning upon either infidelity and homosexuality, or both at the same time. Regardless of intention, Your Gay Friend is one of the more thought-out tracks in Robbie's back catalogue and one that deserves plenty more airtime than it currently gets.
Sin, Sin, Sin essentially confirms the imagery I've discussed above, not only in the title, but also in lyrical content and also in the video. It's a classic example of Williams' tongue-in-cheek humour, ribbing himself for his own affairs with other women. Lyrical content also goes hand-in-hand here, discussing the act of having an affair and only staying around if intimacy is involved. In terms of Williams' entire discography, Sin, Sin, Sin is probably one of his cleverer songwriting efforts and is certainly a mile away from the kick-in-the-teeth alt-rock from the first couple of records. It is for this reason that I've always rated it highly amongst swathes of other songs in his back catalogue.
Random Acts Of Kindness, as one of the more mid-tempo yet purposeful stompers here, suits Robbie's voice perfectly, and to paraphrase the man himself, is a song about revenge, and working to find out if people are as sadistic as first thought. Whilst described by a couple of other places as an "overproduced pop rock track", I've always found it to be one of the safer bets on Intensive Care that plays to Williams' strengths as a singer and writer, too.
My interpretation of the lyrics have often been it refers to the tabloid press - the entire second verse could be taken as a dig at the paparazzi and the increasingly predatory nature of the way stars are covered with defamatory comments galore. He goes on to call them spineless in a way, almost calling the papers weak in the process for being within their rights to print the tosh they do. It's more thought-out than most pop songs, and deserves plenty of credit for doing so.
The slightly up-tempo nature of Intensive Care continues thanks to the likes of The Trouble With Me that again centres on Robbie's own problems as he deems himself as someone who's unlovable. Its defined autobiographical senses are welcomed on an album where Williams definitely grows as a lyricist, and this is the best example of that. Discussing such a subject in a song is difficult in itself, but then placing it within some great music too just takes it to that next level.
You might be wondering why I've included a picture of Soccer Aid above, and your question shall be answered here. One of the final songs on Intensive Care is in the incredible A Place To Crash which for the last fifteen years has been the theme song for Soccer Aid. Despite this though, it still remains one of Robbie's hidden gems in his solo back catalogue. You won't necessarily find it on any greatest hits, and the fact it's been stuck on the bottom of Intensive Care means that it relies on listeners taking in the entire record to find it, as opposed to hearing it within the first couple of moments.
It's definitely the rockiest song present, making it a refreshing listen, especially when combining the seething vocal with a heavy guitar drive, in a similar vein to the previously-mentioned Old Before I Die. Yet, on the chorus, it retains the playfulness and youthful spirit of that earlier work, which is rather nice to hear. Lyrically, it might not be anything special, but nostalgia and instrumentation carry this to the top of my list.
For its final offering, Intensive Care slows things down a little with King Of Bloke And Bird that also brings plenty of atmosphere to the party with a six minute track that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a past Marillion album, and that's a compliment by the way.. The more mature nature of this record certainly comes to a head here in a welcome blend of a brooding vocal and minimalistic bassline and drum pattern that brings everything together nicely.
In a nutshell, Intensive Care is an album with plenty of theatre and atmosphere, but also with a more grown-up element to its songwriting and delivery that makes it unique to Robbie Williams' extensive back catalogue. The departure of Guy Chambers may well have been a shock to some, but in a roundabout way, gave Williams one of the best LPs of his entire career.
If you want to pick up a copy, I’ll leave an Amazon link below:
Or, if you’d prefer, here’s a Spotify link:
More musical magnificence to come next time!
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