Williams' star is still not on the rise

New on CD

Music: in concert, CDs

April 24, 2003|By Tom Moon | Tom Moon,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

In the second verse of the first song of his fourth effort, British pop star Robbie Williams proclaims, "Before I've arrived, I can see myself coming."

It's an exceedingly apt description of Williams' erratic career in the United States: For years, we've been told to anticipate the arrival of the 29-year-old singer and songwriter, who on this album sounds more overtly like a young Elton John than he ever has before. Over and over, the wise barons of the record industry - at least the ones who awarded Williams an unprecedented megabucks contract - say he's poised for global superstardom. All he needs is the one magic song to enchant U.S. listeners.

Alas, that song probably isn't among the 14 fastidiously produced tracks on Escapology.

Williams is an endlessly clever wordsmith, and though his melodies (especially the rock anthem "Monsoon") are run-of-the-mill, he delivers them with the conviction of a true believer - even when the words' tone don't align with the accompaniments, as with "Sexed Up." He's grown more agile as a writer since 2000's Sing When You're Winning, bringing tense drama to the allegorical "Me and My Monkey" and the riveting, if overwrought, account of a breakdown in "Come Undone."

Still, Williams' truest performances come on the most conventional material: The gospel-tinged "Something Beautiful" is exactly that, a processional powered by faith that makes the more tricked-out songs, the ones aimed at radio, seem contrived, if not desperate.

Robbie Williams

Escapology (Virgin) ** 1/2

Excellent ****; Good ***; Fair **; Poor *

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