‘Honey’: The Sad, Sweet Resilience of Robyn (Album Review)
“It’s not about getting to the end, but enjoying where you are in the moment.”
Call your girlfriend, and tell her the old Robyn can’t come to the phone right now. Or…ever again.
Nearly a decade after her last studio album, the culmination of three mini-albums packed full of floor-filling synth-pop smashes like “Dancing On My Own,” “Hang With Me” and “Indestructible” released over the year, Robyn’s returned with her long-awaited follow-up LP, Honey, on Friday (October 26).
Let’s address the elephant in the corner watching you kiss her: Body Talk, Honey is not. “Bops,” there are (mostly) not, either.
Like any human being who thinks, feels and generally Lives Through This, Robyn’s dealt with a lot in recent years, including a break-up, an eventual reconciliation (including one between her own parents), and the death of longtime collaborator and beloved friend, Christian Falk.
She was depressed for a long stretch in between, to the point where she wouldn’t get out of bed.
“Then, getting out of bed to get a coffee. Maybe going to therapy. Maybe seeing my brother. Maybe going for a walk,” she said in a New York Times interview.
In time, she slowly regained her composure – but don’t call it a comeback: “I feel like I almost became another person. Like the goal wasn’t for me to come back — I really feel like I rearranged my insides in a way. I didn’t know what I even had to go back to. I felt like a lot of things that I believed before were not true anymore.”
Robyn has been a guiding light, innovator and influencer in pop for years, even if her presence in pop culture has wavered. Listen closely, and you’ll hear her in the latest from Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift and Lorde.
It’s not as though she was ever completely absent, either: she’s always sort of been here, working on side-projects and collaborating with acts like Röyksopp, as well as her experimental La Bagatelle Magique moment. When she wasn’t making new music, she was dancing out the demons at festival gigs around the globe, thrashing around the stage to extended, near unrecognizable dub mixes of her classic songs better suited for circuit parties.
For the more impatient, don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus crowd eager for a chewy pop treat or, far more distastefully, the post-Girls, “Dancing On My Own”-is-so-me hipster crowd, her not-so-easily digestible brand of music-making in recent years has appealed far less. This record will also, probably, not feed that craving.
But she warned us years ago, even at her poppiest: don’t fucking tell her what to do.
As it turned out, “Missing U,” the album’s lead single and opening track, was not really the beginning of a new chapter as much as it was meant to represent an ending.
It’s a trojan horse in some ways: playing like a Body Talk bonus track, the song eases the transition from Old Robyn to New, supplying the sad disco synonymous with the Swedish Queen of Pop, a la “Dancing On My Own” and “With Every Heartbeat.”
“Missing U” is about loss – specifically “about the psychedelic, trippy thing that happens when people are not there anymore,” she told Pitchfork, “and how clear they become all of a sudden, and how you deal with the fact that there’s this big space in your life. In the beginning, there’s no segue between your life and that place where that person used to be…that’s what healing is about: finding ways through that space where that person was. After a while, it starts becoming about connection to other people instead, or to yourself.”
Robyn’s evolved significantly since the making of “Missing U.” Consider it a farewell to the girl you used to know. (Who’s that girl?)
Honey is the sound of the Girl, not the Robot – and the Human Being, not the Fembot.
Her space-age collaboration with Zhala finds us zooming years ahead into the future, like a post-apocalyptic sequel to “Girl & The Robot,” once the robots turn on us: “I wrote the song as if AI had taken over the world, and the human beings were the minority…What is it that’s so special about us really? And if you take that away, is there any value still left in being human? I think the value is being connected to other people,” she told Pitchfork. The sparse track bounces along carefully, metallic and eerie, with a kind of lingering hopefulness for any signs of life.
The songs on Honey are all still sticky with the sweetness and earnestness of a classic Swede-pop production, and still equipped with that signature Robyn Sadness which she’ll never shake (thankfully), but she’s far from untouchable these days. That cocky playfulness she once exuded, with fun, sillier cuts like “Konichiwa Bitches,” “U Should Know Better” and “Criminal Intent,” has mostly faded. Instead, she’s allowed herself to get vulnerable. (It’s…Something More Personal, if you will.)
In fact, she’s done a near 180 with her general outlook on life. Consider the emotionally unavailable “Love Hurts” from years ago: “If you’re looking for love / Get a heart made of steel cause you know that love kills,” she once declared, protected by a barrier of pulsating beats.
Honey‘s “Send to Robin Immediately” – named after what Robyn instructed collaborator Kindness to do upon hearing the song (also, note the spelling of her actual name) – features the exact opposite mantra.
As the hypnotic plea of “Baby Forgive Me” fades away, the song expands into atmospheric new dimensions: “If you got somebody to love, give that love today / Know you got nothing to lose, there’s no time to waste,” she wisely advises.
It’s a YOLO anthem essentially, made all the more real, and urgent, considering recent events in her life.
She was right to name the record Honey, as its contents very much center around the lush, gooey centerpiece that is her throbbing club-pop masterpiece. As she’s previously explained, it took her ages to complete the track to her satisfaction.
The end result is mesmerizingly, hypnotically replay-friendly – subdued euphoria, really. As with “Send to Robin Immediately,” “Honey” is meant to encourage the listener to live in the moment, ride the wave(s) and soak up the sweet nutrition over the course of the song, as opposed to living for the high of a payoff.
“It’s not produced or written as a normal pop song. It is totally based on this idea of club music…when you’re listening to club music, there’s no reward. The reward isn’t, ‘Oh, here’s the chorus, here’s the lyric that makes sense.’ You have to enjoy what it is. You have to enjoy that there’s no conclusion,” she told the NYT.
Dancing, on her own or otherwise, still dominates in Robyn’s world: “Between the Lines” is a loving tribute to early ’90s House, even serving subtle shades of baby Björk, circa Debut. She even sang a Crystal Waters-type song while describing the track to Pitchfork: “Sometimes you imitate stuff until you make something of your own,” she said.
“Because It’s In The Music,” similarly, evokes classic disco nostalgia – and is also written about a song that evokes nostalgia, a la Annie‘s “Songs Remind Me Of You.”
“I wonder when you hear it / Are you getting that same feeling?” she ponders along the song’s sparkling, string-filled strut. As the woman behind “Dancing On My Own,” a song that undoubtedly brings many back to a specific time and place, it’s only fitting that she should ruminate on music tied to memories – a quintessentially Robyn experience.
The sweet, soft swaying sound of “Beach2K20” introduces a gentler style into the mix, crafted in a house in Ibiza with Mr. Tophat: “Maybe that beat is inspired by my samba lessons. I always loved samba music—it makes me cry. I had to learn how to dance to samba because the music is so moving to me. My friend has been dancing for a long time—when I was low and wasn’t making music she would come by and give me lessons,” she told Pitchfork.
Like the spoken-word bit in “Be Mine,” or Touch & Go‘s “Straight to Number One” (anyone remember that incredible song?), Robyn provides conversation-in-song, phoning in (literally) an invitation to go out in the album’s lightest moment, dreamily drifting in and out of the speakers. (“Party, party…” she coos.) It’s unclear whether she got too faded at home to even make it outside…but it sure sounds like it.
That’s a snapshot of the more adult Robyn of 2018: grabbing food on the beach with friends rather than crying on the dance floor on her own.
The album’s final, resilient battle cry – “Ever Again” – only keeps the mood lifting higher and higher…In Spite of Everything. It’s a total triumph, and feels like a compromise in some ways, musically: it’s one of the album’s most melodic and accessible moments, but is still vastly more soft-spoken and tender than her more famous pop cuts.
“Never gonna be brokenhearted, never again!” she breathily proclaims over and over.
Her thoughts on the standout track, as told to Pitchfork, are particularly touching.
“I don’t know if I’m an optimist—I used to be, but maybe not as much now. Things don’t always go well, that’s just how it is. I’m not a pessimist: I think there’s a lot of suffering that doesn’t make sense and it’s up to us to be responsible for what’s happened in our lives. I’m not always seeing the best outcome; it matters what you do. But the song is defiant in that maybe my heart will be broken again, but maybe I will think about it in a different way. Maybe I won’t let it destroy me. Coming close to turning 40, I definitely feel more and more aware of my limitations as a human being. I don’t feel limitless like I did when I was 25 or 30. Now I can see life the curve of life happening in a certain way. But because of that, I feel much freer as a person.”
When “Missing U” first premiered, something felt off. It’s not that the song isn’t classic Robyn in many ways, but rather, it felt like she hadn’t evolved at all since Body Talk. As it turned out, the song was really meant as a bridge to the present. And, as it also turns out, nostalgia for more of the same isn’t actually all that fulfilling when it actually happens.
What a relief, then, that deeper, the Honey is sweeter.
Honey might not necessarily be the album you wanted (at first, anyway), but it’s the album Robyn clearly needed to make. It’s soothing, and human, and soft, and fresh, and unrestricted by expectation or trends. Honey also sounds inspired, at a time when musical creativity is in relatively short supply.
In time, like most other pop stars who take a more polarizing or left-of-center detour – from Madonna‘s Bedtime Stories and Ray of Light to Rihanna‘s Anti – you’ll find this was the right call, even if it isn’t necessarily obvious or ideal. Robyn’s too important, too influential, and too ahead of the curve to disparage for making a record with some breathing room for experimentation. She’ll only continue to do things differently – and only her way, always.
“You know you can trust me, right?” she asks before an explosion of throbbing energy fills the speakers at the end of the record.
Always and forever: in Robyn, we trust.
Honey was released on October 26. (iTunes)
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Photo credit: Heji Shin / Mark Peckmezian / Interscope Records