After trying hard to find his own sound during a period of personal upheaval, recordings for the album began at London's Maison Rouge studios in March of that year, shortly after his introduction to Guy Chambers. Writing for Melody Maker in October 1997, Robin Bresnark gave Life thru a Lens a very negative review; "There's nothing here... sure, Robbie Williams is as fascinating a hapless goon as we're ever likely to come across. But this album feels more like a press release than an album – and that's not what I call music." The title track, "Life thru a Lens" was written about Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, "Ego a Go Go" was written about Gary Barlow, "South of the Border" discusses Kate Moss, and "Baby Girl Window" was inspired by Samantha Beckinsale and her late father actor Richard Beckinsale. "One of God's Better People" and "Angels" were inspired by Williams' mother Jan. "Hello, Sir" is a poem that takes a dig at one of Williams' former teachers. Williams reprised part of the poem on the 1 Giant Leap song "My Culture".
The album was released in October 1997, not long after Williams's stint in rehab. The album was launched with his first live solo gig at the Élysée Montmartre in Paris, France. At first, the album was slow to take off, debuting at #11 on the UK Albums Chart, and falling to #104 not long after release, having sold a little over 30,000 copies. The album reached the number one position after spending twenty-seven weeks on the chart, as a consequence of the huge success of the "Angels" single, boosting the album's sales to 300,000. The album spent a total of 218 weeks on the chart and two weeks at number one, becoming the 58th best selling album of all time with sales of 2.4 million copies. Despite the album's success in Williams' homeland, it failed to make a bigger impact in the international market. However, in Argentina, the album reached the top ten in early 1998. The album has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. The album has been certified as 8x Platinum in the UK.
"Lazy Days" was released as the album's second single in the summer of 1997, amidst Williams' battle with addiction. He was allowed to check out from rehab to shoot the video for the song. The single charted at number-eight in the United Kingdom but, because promotion was nonexistent, struggled to reach the top forty of any other European chart.
"South of the Border" was released as the album's third single in September 1997. It failed to make a significant impact on the UK Singles Chart, peaking at #14, and as such, many considered this the end of Robbie Williams.
"Angels", a song penned by himself and Guy Chambers, was released as the album's fourth single. The decision to release the song came after Williams met the record company to discuss concerns about his future. It later emerged that Williams had purchased the song from Dublin songwriter Ray Heffernan for £10,000 on condition of a writing credit on the album. The credit was not given but a cryptic obscure message of thanks - "Even fallen angels laugh last, thanks to Ray Heffernan"—does appear on the sleeve. The single was released in December 1997, soon becoming Williams' best selling-single in the United Kingdom, being certified 2× Platinum by the BPI. The song became a hit around Europe and Latin America and sold almost two million copies worldwide, rocketing sales of his album.
"Let Me Entertain You" was released as the album's fifth and final single in March 1998. It peaked at #3 on the UK Singles Chart, becoming one of Williams' signature songs and being the opener of most Williams' tours throughout his career.
"The Full Monty Medley" (with Tom Jones) (Live at the Brit Awards)
"Michael Parkinson Interview"
"Let Me Entertain You" (Live on TOTP)
"Killing Me" (Live on TOTP)
MVC stores in the UK offered a free bonus CD with the purchase of either Life Thru a Lens or I've Been Expecting You during Christmas 1999. The album did not contain any unreleased material, but contained twenty-one previously released B-sides and demos from both eras.