In 2001 British music star Robbie Williams, formerly of the boy band Take That, did the unthinkable when he released a swing album for his fourth album, following three hugely successful pop albums. It was called Swing When You’re Winning, the title being a pun on the title of his previous album, Sing When You’re Winning. I don’t think many of Robbie’s fans thought it was a very good idea for him to do a swing album, but once it was released it did extremely well. I still listen to it regularly today, 12 years later. And for over a decade I’ve found myself wishing that Robbie would make a new swing album. After all, he’d be saying that he was going to do a new swing record ever since the first one did so well, but for whatever reason(s) he kept putting it off. Well, I am very happy to say that he’s finally made his second swing album, Swings Both Ways, and it’s a major triumph.
Swing When You’re Winning only contained one original song, “I Will Talk and Hollywood Will Listen,” among its dozen plus tracks. That’s where Swings Both Ways differs, Swings Both Ways featuring seven original songs on the standard edition of the album and nine on the deluxe edition. Most of these original songs were co-written by Robbie and Guy Chambers and the album was also impeccably produced by Chambers. The two had not done an entire album together since Swing When You’re Winning. In fact, they had a very public feud throughout the past decade, so intense, in fact, that people were shocked when Robbie decided to do one of the leftover tracks he’d written with Chambers on his 2009 album Reality Killed the Video Star. That being said, Chambers and Robbie’s fruitful relationship had yielded many of Robbie’s early hits, many of which still remain his biggest hits, and Robbie once remarked that Guy Chambers was as much a part of Robbie Williams as he was. Suffice to say that fans often hoped the two would work together again at some point and most were delighted to hear that Chambers was writing with Robbie and producing Swings Both Ways.
The album opens with the finger-snapping, jazzy “Shine My Shoes,” which was written by Robbie, Chambers and Chris Heath. Fans will recall the name Chris Heath because he’s the writer who followed Robbie around for a year and wrote the authorized biography Feel. To that end, Heath is normally not a songwriter, though he occasionally collaborates with Robbie with good results. “There’s no room in my band, but while you’re here to lend a hand, you can shine my shoes,” Robbie sings with gusto while splendid horns blare. It’s a highly infectious number and the perfect way to open the album. If anyone was afraid that Robbie couldn’t write swing songs on par with those he’s covered, well, this should shut them right up. And it’s followed by another spot-on tune Robbie wrote with Chambers and Heath, the new single “Go Gentle,” a jazzed up, mid-tempo, piano-centric ditty that also packs some horns, though here they’re rather, well, gentle, in accordance with the title. This one also features some sweeping strings, though it’s the piano and Robbie’s voice that remain front and center throughout the track. Whereas “Shine My Shoes” is borderline slapstick in the lyric department, “Go Gentle” is much more serious. “Go gentle through your life / If you want me I’ll be there / When you need me, I’ll be there for you,” goes the uplifting chorus.
The third track is the first of several duets on the album and the first cover, “I Wan’na Be Like You,” done as a duet with Olly Murs. It’s not the first time Olly has done a duet with Robbie, as he recently performed Kylie Minogue’s part of the Robbie/Kylie duet “Kids” during Robbie’s Take The Crown Tour, which Olly opened for. In order to do “I Wan’na Be Like You” justice, you can’t take it seriously. It’s meant to be an uproarious farce of a tune and Robbie and Olly clearly had a lot of fun recording it. While they probably recorded their parts separately, you’d swear they recorded the track live in the studio, holding back the laughter as they did. They just go back and forth so naturally, like they’re hanging out and having an absolute blast. The part where they say “I’m loving life” back and forth a few times never fails to put a smile on my face. I also can’t help but think of the classic movie Swingers whenever I hear this song and that makes me smile, too.
Next up is one of my favorite songs on the album, “Swing Supreme,” which is a jazzed out new take on Robbie’s classic hit “Supreme.” I remember thinking that he should have done a swing version of this one way back when his first swing record was released. It just seemed destined to become a swing number. And I’m pleased to say that it does not disappoint. On the contrary, the sweeping strings and boisterous horns give the song new life and elevate it to iconic status. And if the original version of the song didn’t make you think of James Bond movies with its Bond-esque melody and all, well, this version certainly will. It also might make you think of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and that wouldn’t just be coincidence. When Robbie released “Supreme,” he thought his song was different enough from “I Will Survive” that he wouldn’t get into trouble, but, alas, it got him sued and so “I Will Survive” author Freddie Perren receives a co-songwriting credit on this version along with Robbie and Chambers.
Rufus Wainwright does a duet with Robbie on the title track, “Swings Both Ways.” As far as the album title goes, it could refer to the fact that Robbie is doing both originals and covers on the album. But, obviously, it’s meant as something of a joke, too, since people have long speculated that Robbie is bisexual. Well, this tune finds him practically admitting as much. “Everybody swings both ways,” they sing during the chorus and, yes, they do mean sexually. “Face it Robbie, you’re a little bit gay,” Wainwright sings just as the chorus ends. Oh, it’s meant to be fun and even a little bit silly, but I don’t believe it’s entirely a joke. Then again, it’s Robbie and Robbie loves to toy with people’s perception of him, so I wouldn’t put it past him to do something like this just to play games with his audience. Either way, it’s a delightful song.
Robbie duets with Lily Allen on an especially mellow rendition of the classic Ozzie Nelson standard “Dream a Little Dream,” which begins with tender acoustic guitar but eventually pours on enough piano and soothing strings to make it fit in here among the proper swing numbers. And, speaking of proper swing numbers, Robbie does a duet with today’s most popular swing artist, Michael Bublé, one of the album’s Robbie Williams’ originals here, “Soda Pop.” “I’m gonna sell soda pop / bop she-bop,” they sing over and over during the immensely catchy chorus before some blasting, invigorating horns. The fact that Robbie got Michael Bublé to duet on one of his original songs just goes to show you how enormously popular Robbie is throughout most of the world. Here in the States, well, he’s still relatively unknown and hasn’t released anything — except digitally — since his 2002 album, Escapology. But that’s partially because Robbie enjoys the fact that he can basically be anonymous here in the States and has told his record companies not to promote his albums here anymore accordingly.
The album’s final duet is with none other than the amazing Kelly Clarkson on a tune called “Little Green Apples.” Although it’s a cover — originally performed by its songwriter, Bobby Russell — I’d never heard the song prior to this album. At least not to the best of my recollection. But it’s the perfect song for Robbie and Kelly to duet on and it calls to mind Robbie’s light-hearted duet with Nicole Kidman on “Somethin’ Stupid” (originally performed by Frank Sinatra and daughter Nancy, which was controversial back in the day) from Swing When You’re Winning. It’s probably too mellow to be a single, but it’s quite the heart-warming number and easily one of the album’s highlights.
And I also have to mention Robbie’s cover of the rollicking gem “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” the Irving Berlin classic made famous by the pop artist named Taco back in the ’80’s. Thankfully, Robbie’s version does not mirror Taco’s misguided take on the song, which was quite the hit back in the day, but, rather, is true to Berlin’s original, jazzy version of the much beloved song.
Honestly, this is Robbie at the top of his game, having the most fun that he’s had with an album since Rudebox. That Chambers collaborated with him on this alone ought to show you that it’s high caliber work, but just look at all of those big names he’s done duets with here if you need further verification that this is grade A, primo stuff. Whether you favor Robbie’s original songs or the covers, I should think that even the casual jazz and swing fan would fall head over heels in love with this truly remarkable album. And, obviously, it’s a must if you’re a fan of Robbie or any of his co-conspirators.