The album cycle that began with “Rock DJ” a year before staggers to its end four singles later with “The Road To Mandalay”, a bitter squib of a song, pulled from the end of Sing When You’re Winning and paired with new track “Eternity”. “Rock DJ” was a party song with an undercurrent of spite – by this double A-Side, the party’s been over for quite some time. The spite remains.
“Eternity” tries its best to be gracious. It’s written about Geri Halliwell, whose friendship and brief fling with Williams had tabloid editors pinching themselves the year before. You wonder what she made of it. The song has sympathy for a fellow inhabitant of the goldfish bowl, but it’s sympathy with a rather morose edge to it: “The past is gone, we’ve been betrayed”. If Geri hoped for a second “Angels” to commemorate her holiday romance, she’d have been disappointed. “Sombre serenade” is about right – “Eternity” is a lead-footed, despondent song that makes gestures toward soaring but can’t lift its sodden wings. “I hope you find your freedom… for eternity” Robbie keeps singing, the words so big they sound gaseous and insincere. When, right at the end, he switches “…for eternity” to “…eventually”, it’s the first time anything in the song has felt true.
He’s singing – as usual – about himself. “Youth is wasted on the young / Before you know it’s come and gone too soon”: the 26-year old Robbie was the country’s biggest star by leagues, aloft on 6 million album sales. But like many successful people he’s driven by an itch, not a goal; defined by his dissatisfaction. He’s always checking for exits. It’s a useful instinct – he chose a good time to ditch Take That, and soon he’ll be edging Guy Chambers towards the door (they have one more collaborative triumph to come, “Feel”, but it’s a demo from their 1999 heyday). The treacly “Eternity” shows a partnership low on steam.
The dread buried somewhere underneath “Eternity” is barely hidden at all on “The Road To Mandalay”, Robbie’s most dyspeptic track yet. It’s nothing to do with Kipling’s poem or Sinatra’s adaptation – though Williams’ magpie-ing a title from Ol’ Blue Eyes is a hint of where he’s about to jump. Instead it’s Robbie closing out his best-selling LP with a death’s-head smile: a jaunty performance of dissatisfaction and regret that’s musically closer to Belle And Sebastian than to the pomp-rock he’d got big on. “Every mistake I’ve ever made has been rehashed and then replayed”, he announces in a song whose every line is bile. “What a lovely holiday / There’s nothing funny left to say.”
“Eternity” and “Mandalay” are two songs gnawing at the same dry bone – fame and the price of it. The topic Robbie Williams keeps turning around in his music, ten years after he first made his devil’s bargain and joined Take That. He needs to stop. He can’t stop. Too much the attention junkie. But “The Road To Mandalay”, worn-out, self-disgusted and still grinning, is as far down this path as he can go. “Time to die and be reborn.”