Robbie Williams Good, Trey Anastasio Bad

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about Robbie Williams.

It was ostensibly a review of Escapology, his fifth album, but it turned into a thesis on the differences between international popularity and the American variety. I said that Williams will never be popular on this side of the Atlantic, despite achieving universal superstardom pretty much everywhere else. And I gave reasons, most notably his taste for campy humor and self-mockery. The general American public doesn’t quite get camp, I fear, and Escapology, like all of Williams’ efforts, was full of it.

I hate to say it, but I was right. Escapology flopped like a dying fish, and while I don’t usually care one way or another whether musicians attain widespread fame and fortune, in this case his sinking fortunes have affected my ability to hear his stuff. Williams just released his sixth album, Intensive Care, in seemingly every country on Earth except this one. In interviews, he’s come out and said that he’s given up on America, and it’s not worth even going to the bother of getting Intensive Care into stores over here.

It makes sense, unfortunately. And I can’t complain too much, because Williams and EMI set the new record’s price point so low that even the import doesn’t cost too much. But dammit, isn’t it enough that the rest of the world thinks of us as barbaric empire-builders who are so incompetent that we can’t take care of our own flooding cities? Now the European music machine is shunning us, too. The new Starsailor album, On the Outside, saw a similar non-U.S. release recently, and that import is way too costly for little old me. Damn you, general public!

It’s not as if America is missing a masterpiece in Intensive Care, but I like it, much more than I expected I would. Williams has been a polarizing figure for years now, mostly because of his fondness for ironic bragging – see “Handsome Man,” the best song on Escapology – and much of his scenery-chewing success has been credited to his partner in crime, Guy Chambers, who co-wrote all of Williams’ best songs. But that partnership dissolved shortly after Escapology was released, leaving questions about Williams’ ability to keep his streak alive on his own.

Not to worry. For Intensive Care, Robbie hooked up with Stephen Duffy, known for his collaborations with Barenaked Lady Steven Page. The result is a more (gasp) mature effort, a calmer and less obnoxious record than any he has made. The swagger is all but missing, save for the opening couplet, perhaps the funniest I’ve ever heard – over a Queen-like, anthemic piano, Williams sings, “Here I stand, victorious, the only man who made you come.” I nearly drove off the road.

But from there, the album is startlingly subdued. Opener “Ghosts” morphs from that slap of a first line into a sweet song about death and separation. “Make Me Pure” follows up its title phrase with “…but not yet,” but the song is hummable acoustic pop, not the brash rock you may expect. Williams steals a title from his idol Freddie Mercury for “Spread Your Wings,” which feels for a minute like it may follow the old trash-talking formula, but it turns more Mellencamp-esque, a hopeful slice of heartland rock.

I would never say that Robbie Williams is an artist worth following, even though I have followed him since his debut, but he and Duffy have made an attractive little pop album here, one that scales back the persona and focuses on the songs. Even when Williams gets randy, as on the ode to adultery “Your Gay Friend,” it’s charming this time out. If Escapology put you off, Intensive Care will welcome you back, and pour you a pint. It will even move you with closing track “King of Bloke and Bird,” the best ballad in Williams’ catalog. Far from the post-Chambers drop-off I expected, this may in fact be Williams’ most accomplished record. Too bad no one over here will hear it.

I have to mention the cover art, despite how hokey it is, because it was conceived by comics wonder-team Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. It’s a series of tarot-like designs, drawn by Quitely, with a campy Williams superimposed over them – far sillier than it sounds, and in fact far sillier than the album it is meant to represent. But hey, comic book guys getting work! Gotta support that.

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And then there is Trey Anastasio.

Unlike Williams’ album, anyone who wants to can walk into any Best Buy in the country and pick up Anastasio’s Shine, his fourth solo effort. And I say “effort” in the most ironic sense possible – the former Phish leader has finally completed his long descent into mediocrity here, and while it’s been an interesting ride, I think I’m getting off at this stop.

For its last sputtering decade of life, Phish seemed to be aiming for musical anonymity. Hearing the band that wrote “The Divided Sky” and “Maze” limiting themselves to the likes of “Mexican Cousin” and “Crowd Control” was just depressing. It was almost like hearing Yes become an Eagles cover band. If you can play “Close to the Edge,” why would you hack out variations on “The Long Run”? Their frequent live albums were consistently fun, and their concerts reportedly never suffered, but on disc, Phish had been DOA for years before they called time of death.

And here, now, is proof that erstwhile leader Anastasio was the driving force steering the band into slumberland. Bassist Mike Gordon has made some fine records with Leo Kottke, and pianist Page McConnell’s Vida Blue side project showed his abilities in ways Phish hadn’t since Rift or so. But Shine is terrible, a collection of 12 small tunes that fail as pop and as instrumental showcases. It’s boring, the first thing Anastasio has ever done that I think anyone else could do.

Had producer Brendan O’Brien amassed a crack band of faceless studio pros to lay down the tracks here, the album wouldn’t have been any blander than it is with Trey playing, and that’s a damn shame. Anastasio is a gifted guitarist and a decent songwriter, when he’s trying, but on Shine his idiosyncrasies have been ironed out, his playing truncated, and even his voice smoothed and boosted.

O’Brien plays all the bass on this record, and acquits himself well, but let’s be fair – there is nothing here that your standard studio pro couldn’t have done. O’Brien, like all the musicians here, just gets out of the way, and the problem is there’s nothing actually taking up the space they’re vacating. The songs are just sad, especially from someone this talented. When Chad Kroger from Nickelback is routinely outdoing you as a composer, it’s time to reassess something.

I am being harsh, I know. Shine is a fine, fun, simplistic pop-rock record, and if all you want is the southern-fried riff-and-roll of something like “Air Said to Me,” then this will suit you. Personally, I can’t even get through something as boring as “Sweet Dreams Melinda” or “Spin” without reaching for the track skip button. The one song I enjoyed is “Wherever You Find It,” an ascending ballad with an extended coda and the sweetest solo on here, but even that one is predictable, something Trey Anastasio has rarely been. This is radio-ready, anonymous and spit-shined, and I hope it sells a lot of product for him, because that seems to be the main motivation.

I said earlier that I’m getting off this ride, but of course that’s a lie. Even if I weren’t a completist, I respect Anastasio’s talent too much to stop supporting his work. So here’s the thing – if Trey wants to keep making these piss-poor wastes of his time and skill, I’ll keep buying them anyway, and probably slating them here. But if, by some wonderful twist of fate, he decides to come back to making challenging, inspired music again, I’ll be here waiting for him.

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I just rated Robbie Williams higher than Trey Anastasio. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of the apocalypse, but I think I’ll take the day off and hang out in my bomb shelter, just in case.

Next week, the long-awaited return of Kate Bush. Plus, Neal Morse writes a 56-minute song about God. Oh, joy. (It’s actually really good.)

See you in line Tuesday morning.