Robyn Fights Like Hell for Optimism on 'Honey'
Eight years since ‘Body Talk,’ Robyn returns with a tender, unexpected album.
Photo by Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns
It almost impossible to believe that Robyn’s last album was released in 2010. Body Talk, a three-part pop triumph of robotics, was Robyn’s last solo released material. She did collaborations with Royksopp and Kindness in-between but then, after her 2014 tour of Body Talk, Robyn simply stopped.
During those eight years, everything changed in pop music. Briefly: Drake rose to unimaginable heights, dominating both rap and pop, setting and breaking record streams; Beyoncé’s solo albums 4, self-titled, and Lemonade confirmed her status as pop’s everlasting queen; Rihanna gifted us mere mortals with ANTI; Taylor Swift crossed over from country to pop to political idol. Solo female pop artists, too, with a penchant for innovative, weird, imaginative pop like Lorde and Charli XCX broke-through and remained high on pop’s it list. Then there’s litany of similar, if not some straight-up copycats, who emerged like Icona Pop, Halsey, Tove Lo, Mö, Sky Ferreira—a seemingly endless list of women shaped, if not purposefully, by Robyn’s uneven path to pop music success. Through it all though, Robyn, in a sense, was always there—drifting through pop’s evolution as a spectral, intentionally or not. In 2012, when Girls used “Dancing On My Own,” the song was revitalized and became a single girl’s anthem of sorts. Body Talk—and Robyn—proved to be sustainable throughout pop’s change of face.
Honey is not the Robyn of 2010. It’s not even the pop music of 2018. Honey is a nine-song urgent exploration of tenderness, heartbreak (not simply through a romantic lens), and perseverance through the dark. If self-care as a practice, not a hashtag or buzzword, were to be encapsulated in a record, it would be Honey. What the album does well is give warmth, sensitivity—Robyn’s most insightful of all her records to date—and it is, above all, aurally captivating. As pop music goes, Honey is the future without the sounds of futurism; interesting, balmy beats (a sonic portrait of Ibiza and the beach transitioning to the dancefloor, for example) paired with lyrics that lay Robyn’s, at times, sore but glimmering heart bare. In one word: Honey is optimistic.
Robyn's career is a masterclass in subtle restarts. “Show Me Love” was our first meeting with Robyn and it became a 90s classic. Luckily, Robyn survived being a one-hit wonder. She rebranded and coasted through the late 90s and early 2000s with Don’t Stop The Music and her self-titled until we got to Body Talk. With Honey, her refresh, a re-evaluation as she has called it in interviews, is more natural and intuitive. Musicians love to talk about the time they’ve set aside to figure things out and start over but those are often for soundbites, not really true moments of reflection and renewal. Because actual reflection is hard, sometimes isolating, and often inconvenient. Robyn stepped away from the spotlight for nearly five years, went through and landed on the other side of a devastating break-up, the death of a friend, and a re-discovery of her own passions and confidence. She did the work.
In a New York Times interview, Robyn said that “Missing U” would be the most so-called traditional sounding Robyn we’d get on Honey. The other tracks swerve in a different direction. It’s true that “Missing U” is Robyn’s bridge from Body Talk, and her other pop iterations. “Missing U” is the “Dancing On My Own,” “Call Your Girlfriend,” and “Hang With Me” updated hybrid. In a remarkable fashion, that perhaps only Robyn can do this well, “Missing U” becomes an anthem of both regret and positive possibility; of mourning and moving on. The arpeggio intro, which she has described as sounding like a sunrise, immediately moves your body. That momentum doesn’t dip or drop altogether. During the song’s chorus, Robyn emphatically hits every beat: “I keep digging through our waste of time/But the picture's incomplete.”
A big source of the material for Honey was her own personal struggles (lack of confidence and purpose) and the death of her close friend. “Missing U” reads classically like a break-up song but its depth of parsing out the death of someone you’d believe would still exist is lost if you read it simply through a romantic lens. There is Robyn’s shift: luring us in with what we may believe is something we know all too well (heartache, break-ups, etc.) to excavate feelings that have a far heavier, more urgent weight, and how to get be happy after it all.
Robyn whispers, breathes, and pauses delicately throughout Honey. Amid some truly stunning production moments, Robyn often takes her time on the tracks following “Missing U.” (The literalness of her absence—her pause—from music is not at all lost here.) “Baby Forgive Me” is a slowed down, lush and steamy track of remorse and loving. It’s tempered though, considerate and more emotionally intuitive to be simply a song about unbreaking a break-up; Robyn’s evolved past that. Most of the tracks on Honey seem to, initially, follow pop music’s classic bait-and-switch of upbeat sounds paired with tragic, devastating lyrics. What pulses throughout the record is a sense of confidence, not despair, among even the most heart-wrenching lyrics and moments. “Because It’s In The Music” is Robyn’s brightest on Honey—truly. The track sounds like a shimmering rainbow. (My immediate thought was it sounded too similar to The Sims music or what you’d hear if you arrived at Princess Peach’s castle). But that, too, with Robyn singing “nothing lasts forever/ not the sweet, not the bitter” doesn’t even feel emotionally catastrophic.
“Honey” and “Human Being” anchor Honey, both rife with confidence and a sense of self-care. Robyn’s emotional path and rediscovery aren’t exactly linear on Honey, which makes for an interesting listen, bouncing through, almost how you would in real-time, a spectrum of experiences. Softness wasn’t missing on Body Talk, but the robotic production textures of the record didn’t lend itself to such nuances. Both of these tracks press deep, like a massage working to get out a knot in your back. “And the waves come in and they're golden/ But down in the deep the honey is sweeter” Robyn sings on the album’s title track, which, doesn’t that sound immediately so comforting and good?
Honey isn’t the saccharine, insincere pop of the 90s or the flashiness of the Aughts and 2010s. Pop music, too, doesn’t always have to serve a big political purpose or statement, as has been fashionable lately. Honey, with it’s delicate, sun-drenched sounding arpeggios and shimmering synths, is the soothing reminder of what kind of good exists when we emerge from the darkness of our minds. Sincerity is, perhaps, not always a favoured way of moving through the world. On the edge of gullible, sincerity looks like corniness. But sincerity is a means of survival; of being able to believe in the brightness in your life, even if you’re not really ready to see it yet. Perhaps the most radical thing you can do as a person is to find your happiness and fight like hell to stay there.
Sarah is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey CA.