Following a couple of weeks off from this column, we’re returning with a bang and Robbie Williams’ sterling debut Life Thru A Lens.
Williams’ tenure with Take That had taken him to stardom already, but this solo venture would only propel him further into the limelight and thrust him into superstardom, all with the added bonus of one of the best debut records of the nineties.
Lazy Days get us started, with a rocking sound about youth and optimism and how it’s fundamentally okay to make mistakes during your youth as nobody really cares, even yourself to a point. With such relatable lyrics, you fail to take any notice of the great backing behind Williams’ vocal. It’s similar to Oasis’ debut single Supersonic when discussing individuality and effects of youth, and there’s a bit of Britpop in the instrumental here, with rolling rhythm guitars and heavy drum beats. The album’s title track follows, with a much faster-paced song, seeing Williams jump out the gate with a punchier and more aggressive style that contrasts the album’s opener nicely. There’s a nice element of rebellion as the song’s overwhelming motif, with it giving Williams ample opportunity to mock the rich and different tastes, but also openly make the point that stereotypes just aren’t right. The choice to use an almost punk-like sound is also pretty symbolic, especially considering its status as the guiding torch of counter-culture. It’s certainly a strong opening from the power-duo of Williams and producer Chambers.
Ego Agogo is a direct dig at former Take That bandmate Gary Barlow and to be honest, Williams doesn’t hold back. It’s got this fantastic attitude and taunting nature to it, with the lyrics offering a direct insight into Williams’ feelings about his former bandmate. The whole chorus plays on Barlow’s supposed complacency at the situation that, in Robbie’s eyes, he could ride high off the Take That breakup and leave Williams to it. Williams ultimately rips Barlow to shreds and would leave Barlow in the shadow of such a fabulous solo career, but the two would eventually reconcile and put aside any differences. Angels takes on a completely different sentiment to the rest of the record thus far, portraying a more emotional side to the reckless Williams that would ultimately do him the world of good. It’s his signature song, and notably the one that saved his solo career. Previous singles, such as the previously mentioned Lazy Days had mediocre success, but it once again proves that love songs are the key to the consumer’s heart and they’ll bow down to something soppy over something taunting. Make no bones about it, Angels is a masterpiece, with its smooth guitar and raw lyrics, but there’s something charming about the rebellious nature of the rest of the album.
South Of The Border once again offers Williams’ view on contemporary issues, with this tune choosing to discuss “a freaky young lady named Cocaine Katie” or supermodel Kate Moss to you and I. Where Angels had succeeded, South Of The Border was the point where many thought Williams’ solo career had already fallen flat. It became the first Williams single not to reach the UK Top Ten, and this would last until 2006 with the release of Sin Sin Sin. With all this in mind, it’s a heavy tune with a little bit of funk creeping in too, making it more versatile and appealing than Angels. It’s certainly a song about individuality and making decisions on your own and explains that perfectly, with its brilliant gritty guitar riff and lyrical patterns in a similar way to Walk This Way by Aerosmith and by building on some rock royalty, it just shows this song’s further magnificence. Old Before I Die was Williams’ debut single, mirroring the Britpop sound of the day. It continues the grit and comments on age from previous songs and how the times that we're living are weird and absurd - this certainly seems applicable in the modern age. Otherwise, it's one of this album's standouts, with some great drumming from Chris Sharrock providing a formidable backbone for some gritty guitars and Williams' impressive vocal.
One Of God's Better People offers something a lot lighter than the rocking numbers preceding it, once again showing Williams' emotional side. It's a simple song in reality, talking about his dependence on someone. In this case, it's a song about his mother and how he's grateful for her existence as someone to turn to in times of need. Due its stripped back nature, it's certainly one of the rawer and more powerful songs in Williams' back catalogue. Let Me Entertain You is the absolute antithesis of the raw and emotional One Of God's Better People, offering something seething. It's one of Williams' most popular songs and it's easy to see why. You're getting a whole lot of attitude as Williams wanted to distance himself from the typical boyband persona, as well as continuing that theme of rebellion as he storms through lines on changing identity and protesting.
Killing Me slows things down and brings the acoustic guitar back into the fold, along with some nicely placed strings and subtle electric guitar licks. It's a heavy subject matter given the song's stripped back nature, discussing a broken relationship and its associated emotional turmoil. It's a very Oasis sounding song, especially with the horn section as the song ends and its course to build to something magnificent. Clean brings something a bit more groovy than the preceding tracks, talking of Williams' attempts to clean himself up from the drink and drugs he'd been used to. It turns into something a bit more psychedelic towards the end but normal service is resumed with an extended chorus that turns back into that dreamy outro, reminiscent of some of The Beatles' work on Sgt. Pepper and the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.
The final song of Life Thru A Lens is actually split in two, offering a standalone album track and one of Williams' famous hidden tracks following a long wait. Baby Girl Window is that standalone head-in-the-clouds song, featuring a tribute to a former girlfriend's father, actor Richard Beckinsale from Porridge and Rising Damp, with a light acoustic backing seeming fitting with the nature of the song. It's a lovely number, especially given the inflections of happiness in Williams' vocals that help to bring this song to life. The aforementioned hidden track is Williams' poem Hello Sir, addressed to one of his most hated teachers from school and taunting him due to Williams' success, both in and out of Take That. It's a great summary of his first record - full of youth, exuberance and jibes at other people and the world.
Life Thru A Lens is certainly a record that put Robbie Williams on pop music fans' radars forever, and started to cement his place as one of Britain's finest musical exports. From punk rock to heart-wrenching ballads, this record's got it all.
If you want to pick up a copy, I’ll leave an Amazon link here: https://amzn.to/2BCSyrB
Or, if you’d prefer, here’s a Spotify link:
More musical magnificence to come next week!
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