Why things are looking up for Robbie Williams
The bad boy of pop is back with his first solo album since the Take That reunion, writes John Meagher
Flynn Francis and Tim Metcalfe are, in the words of Robbie Williams, "two young spunks from Melbourne". They are completely unknown in this part of the world. Yet, the songwriting and production duo who call themselves The Undercolours play a major role in Williams' ninth album, Take the Crown, which is released today.
Eight of the songs were penned by the pair, who are both 24, and the ex-Take That man has been effusive in his praise: "They're f***ing amazing, really talented songwriters. Completely and utterly delusional, full of ego. They remind me of someone I used to know when I was their age."
Williams may be just 38, but he is a veteran of 22 years in the music industry. Take the Crown is his attempt to recapture some of the glory he enjoyed when he quit Take That and became -- for a fleeting period -- arguably the biggest male solo star on the planet. More recently, his fortunes have fluctuated wildly, although his willingness to court controversy remains close to the surface.
In the past week alone, he has spoken about missing out on sex with his one-time collaborator Kylie Minogue, lambasted the quality of the performances on The X Factor and has suggested that all is not well in the court of One Direction.
His talent for making headlines began shortly after joining Take That when he was just 16. His willingness to shoot from the lip brought him into conflict with the band's manager Nigel Martin Smith when Williams quit after five years.
But few could have imagined that the figure who had played second fiddle to Gary Barlow in a manufactured boy band would be able to reinvent himself so spectacularly.
By the end of the 1990s Williams was ensuring the EMI bigwigs were enjoying Christmas bonuses.
As the 2000s dawned it looked like the boy from Stoke-on-Trent could do no wrong. Yet, as the acclaimed biography, Feel, made clear, Williams was battling demons. Drug-addiction, alcohol-dependency and depression threatened to tip him over the edge. Williams -- his weight fluctuating wildly -- became a staple for the tabloid newspapers.
Despite his personal problems, Williams continued to shift albums. I saw him at the height of his powers in Berlin in 2005. I was part of an Irish delegation among some 400 music journalists brought to the city to see the star give a press conference.
The following day, his prowess as a consummate live performer was plain for all to see at the Velodrome. His well-documented troubles seemed far away. But such a juggling act would prove impossible to maintain.
In 2006, everything that could go wrong did. His experimental album Rudebox was a critical and commercial failure and the media gleefully reported that unsold copies were being used to pave streets in China.
And he appeared to have something of a meltdown on stage at Croke Park. So poor was his performance that he promised to return to Dublin to perform a free gig. Six years later, he played the O2 with proceeds donated to children's charities.
He has enjoyed stability of sorts in recent years. He married the American actress Ayda Field in 2010 and rejoined the reformed Take That the same year.
In September, Williams and Field had their first child, daughter Theodora Rose. And last month he was in Dublin to launch a line of menswear called Farrell, inspired by his Irish grandfather who emigrated to England to work as a navvy.
Whether or not Take the Crown can return Williams to the glory days of old remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: in a world of beige pop stars, Robbie will remain as gloriously opinionated and divisive as ever.
Read John Meagher's review of Take the Crown on page 16 of Day & Night