It’s Only Us / She’s the One
Robbie Williams' second solo long-player saw the one-time boyband singer stretch his creative wings in a fashion entirely unexpected, embracing not only sumptuous (read: overblown to some ears) string arrangements but also bruised pop-soul and boisterous, hook-heavy rock.
While his debut, the preceding year's Life Thru a Lens, was an album typical of its type, full of missteps in pursuit of a sound guaranteed to maintain a long and successful career, I've Been Expecting You focused on the finest aspects of its predecessor to come across as a 12-track collection with emphasis on accessibility only through greater investment of attention. While it lacked a sing-along anthem in the mould of Angels - Millennium is a wholly different-of-mood piece - Williams and his songwriting partner Guy Chambers achieved a consistency that marks this record out as perhaps his strongest to date.
Granted, there's no real single of memorable note beyond the aforementioned over-ubiquitous John Barry-sampling number, but the bitterness of Karma Killer - the line "I hope you choke on your Bacardi and Coke" may seem trite on paper, but Williams' delivery confirms he means business - and the wonderful No Regrets, featuring subtle backing vocals from Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon, are songs that keep the listener engaged with the narrative. And it's here that I've Been Expecting You impresses - our once cocksure protagonist reveals a sensitive side, often sounding broken by the weight of emotion and expectation, and is all the more endearing for it. His stories seem real, believable, and sympathies are stirred.
"I don't want to hate, but that's all you've left me with / A bitter aftertaste and a fantasy of how we all could live", from No Regrets, is a telling line. After the paparazzi-baiting and headlines-courting hi-jinx of his debut, Williams found the cheekiness had drained away somewhat for this often reserved and only intermittently energised set. Even Millennium, the record's upbeat high, offers an idea of where Williams' head was at: "Come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough".
Few critics dared to knock the man down a peg or two, as by being lyrically open like never before Williams scored his greatest album hit yet. That's ten times platinum and counting, since you asked, and little he's produced since has seemed quite so times-defining of content.