By Chris Willman
Updated March 31, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Robbie Williams: Hammish Brown

There’s plenty more self-mythologizing in the wildly uneven Escapology. ”I’m still the boy next door/That’s if you’re Lord Lichfield and Roger Moore/Have I gone up in the world/Or has the world gone down on me/I’m the one who put the Brit in celebrity,” he tells us in ”Handsome Man.” Funny stuff, arguably, but these aren’t lyrics so much as unabashed album-review bait. After a hard day suffering unironic narcissists like Xtina and 50 Cent, it’s difficult for critics to resist the false humility in lines like ”I’m here to make money and get laid/Yeah I’m a star but I’ll fade,” ”It’s not very complicated/I’m just young and overrated,” and ”I am scum.”

Maybe we reviewers need to stop being enablers, because ”Escapology”’s best songs — the ones with the greatest shot of winning over America — are its least quotable. For the U.S. edition of the album, which topped the overseas charts last fall, Williams has wisely dropped four of his trademark hubris-heavy numbers and replaced ’em with two slightly more generic but superior potential singles (”One Fine Day,” a midtempo ballad whose wistful title and melody brilliantly disguise bitter breakup lyrics, and ”Get a Little High,” a seemingly pro-recreational-substance teen pep talk). In the half of ”Escapology” that works, he and cowriter Guy Chambers ditch the ego trip and demonstrate a journeyman’s audacity, jumping from the sweet, horn-inflected Memphis soul of ”Something Beautiful” to the surprisingly credible, distorted alt-rock of the steel-guitar-driven ”How Peculiar” to an Elton-and-Kiki-style duet moment on ”Revolution.”

Occasionally, Williams even manages candor without cockiness. ”There’s a hole in my soul/You can see it in my face/It’s a real big place,” he sings, almost movingly, in the lushly melancholic opener, ”Feel.” You might be able to relate, with or without James Bond as a neighbor.