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All on her own, Robyn is a spectacle. The Swedish singer has seized upon the human voice as a tool for prismatic expression ever since she first crossed the Atlantic as a teen pop phenom in 1997. Her breakthrough song, “Show Me Love,” never sounded like a shrink-wrapped Max Martin single, though it set the template for the superproducer’s chain of radio-dominating hits to come. Robyn made the song hers by force, crimping her words at the verse and bringing down every consonant in the chorus like a knife. The lyrics position her as an innocent wanting for experience — “Show me love / Show me life / Baby, show me what it’s all about” — but Robyn countered them by sounding knowing, as if she were adeptly humoring a boy, faking naivete to get what she wanted. She secures power by emulating powerlessness.
That complexity of affect has endured through her 24-year musical career. Since quitting her major label in 2005 and starting her own imprint outside the industry’s usual constraints, Robyn has intensified her relentless pursuit of the paradoxical feelings pop is uniquely equipped to metabolize. She relishes ecstatic songs about heartbreak, downbeat tracks about partying, and every shade of mess in between.
Honey, Robyn’s sixth album and her first in eight years, deepens her knack for packaging untidy emotions into sparkling pop songs. It’s her first album since she started co-producing her own tracks, diving into the machinery of the music and tweaking it as precisely as she modulates her voice. It’s also her first new solo music since she broke up with her long-term partner and lost a lifelong friend, producer Christian Falk, to cancer. Grief tinges the album, but Robyn characteristically refuses to let a single emotion saturate the music. She gets to work extracting sweetness from sadness, pushing through the heavy loss and finding vulnerable, sublime catharsis on the other side.
Unlike Body Talk, the 2010 trio of EPs that cemented Robyn’s position as one of pop’s most meticulous craftspeople, Honey doesn’t interest itself in choruses that aim for the firmament. Singles like “Dancing On My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend” landed eruptive, joyous melodies, which made them all the stranger and the more compelling: The lyrics to both songs concern troubled love triangles, but Robyn herself sang as if unburdened, as if the singing itself could lift the weight. Shirking that crowd-rousing spirit, Honey is softer, more delicate, and more spacious than most of Robyn’s prior discography. “I was interested in songs that didn’t have a beginning and an end, and things that were hypnotic,” she said in a recent Guardian profile. “I wasn’t interested in melody at all.”
Only Robyn could divest from melody and still write “Honey,” a simmering, melancholy single that ranks among her most enchanting songs to date. “No, you’re not going to get what you need,” she begins. “But baby, I have what you want / Come get your honey.” She inflates the “H” at the start of the word “honey,” imbuing the word with an intoxicating flavor, as if just saying it were sweet. These first lines, and the tenderness with which she delivers them, as synthesizer pads swell around her, comprise the album’s knotty nucleus. What you need has been lost and won’t be found; there’s no surprise ending, no resolution where suddenly everything is all right. You won’t be all right. But there is still desire, and the sweetness of its satiation. Come and get it.
The gentle hopelessness hidden in the words “you’re not going to get what you need” floats through the record. Over a punchy bassline, Robyn sings with a detuned alter ego on “Baby Forgive Me,” making a fragile bid at reparations. She pronounces the title’s words in a high, breathless register, but underneath her plea is a second voice, pitched down and slightly out of key: a “wrong” voice that undercuts the sincerity of the “right” one. “Between the Lines” uses a similar tactic, threading a low, garbled vocal through an offbeat take on bad texters. “It’s not your words / It’s what’s in between them / There’s no need to spell it out,” Robyn sings against a sparse, abstract beat, filling in a lover’s lack of affection with her own projections. The production, like the texts, is full of holes, knit together as loosely as possible without disintegrating.
By producing her own tracks for the first time, Robyn has found new and subtle ways to augment her lyrical narratives. Romantic dissatisfaction finds its reflection in a jarring chord or a missing bassline; a lithe, acquiescent synth figure stands in for Robyn’s duet partner on “Honey”; and on “Missing U,” a shimmering arpeggio makes a breakup sound like a new beginning. “There’s this empty space you left behind,” Robyn sings. She’s talking about loss but the gleam on her accompaniment and the gloss on her voice make it sound as though she’s talking about freedom, too.
On the funk-inflected “Because It’s In The Music,” Robyn sings about the way experience gets twinned in a beloved song. “I’m right back in that moment,” she muses, forced into memory by a song attached to a former relationship, “and it makes me want to cry.” There’s no extricating her life from the song or the song from her life; when she hears it, she’s spun back in time. It’s painful, the recollection, but the music ends up transcending it. “I wonder, when you hear it / Are you getting that same feeling?” she asks, and then decides to “keep playing it anyway.” The song ends up sounding more real than the memory. The hurt settles, and the melody coasts over it, and eventually only the song remains. Robyn learned of pop music’s transfigurative power early. Lucky for us, she’s still practicing it.
Honey is out on October 26 on Konichiwa Records. Buy it here.