Robyn’s Radical Return

Robyn’s Radical Return

Honey, the Swedish artist’s first solo album in eight years, is a triumph of cerebral pop music. 

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In 2004, 10 years into her career, the Swedish pop star Robyn wrote a song that her record company didn’t like. An electropop anthem recorded in collaboration with the electronic duo The Knife, “Who’s That Girl?” was a fierce rejection of the demands placed on her as a young female artist: “Good girls are sexy, like every day / I’m only sexy when I say it’s okay.”

At 15, Robyn had launched into the charts with a series of hits that were catchy and full of exuberance, but something had been missing in those songs: Her genius was being smothered by the sleek and bland productions preferred by her label. What “Who’s That Girl?” showed was that there was a vast emotional range just under the surface of her music. After a decade caught in the machinery of the pop industry, Robyn wanted to unleash it.

When the record company bosses said no to the new song, she left to start her own label, Konichiwa. In the years since, Robyn has built an enviable career defined by independence and self-possession. With 2005’s Robyn and her 2010 Body Talk trilogy, she pioneered a form of cerebral dance pop—defiant and fun in equal measure. Her mastery has only become more apparent as others have tried to live up to her blueprint.

After her Body Talk tour, she staged another rebellion of sorts: She took a very long break from the spotlight. Her latest album, Honey, is her first new solo work in eight years. In that time, the fervor behind the record had reached a boiling point—hashtags implored her to release long-teased songs, and fans staged raucous tribute nights to her honor.

Last May, she began her return to public life with a surprise appearance at one of those parties—Brooklyn’s “This Party Is Killing You.” Dressed in a black suit and stiletto boots, she dove from the stage into a sea of arms. In a video of the event released in July, which included a preview of a new song, “Missing U,” fans cried as they described how much her music has meant to them. “Robyn is the soundtrack of like my literal coming out of the closet,” one fan said in a voicemail begging her to attend the party.

Since she last spoke to the press, Robyn has faced some tough times of her own. In 2014, her close collaborator and friend Christian Falk passed away. The same year, she split from her long-term partner, the director Max Vitali. “Missing U,” the first single from Honey, chronicles her grief over the end of that relationship (the couple have since gotten back together), as well as Falk’s death. In the song, a throbbing drum beat loops under the verses and chorus—“There’s this empty space you left behind / Now you’re not here with me / I keep digging through our waste of time / But the picture’s incomplete”—evoking the time she spent riffling through each confusing and unresolved feeling. Her grief is laid bare, excruciating in its personal weight and magnified by the production’s insistent repetition. But she isn’t stuck: Her tone and lyrics imply finding clues, going places, reminiscing, and turning that sorrow into something grander and much more complex. The song ends on a multivalent note: “All the love you gave, it still defines me,” she sings, contradicting the chorus’s idea of time wasted, and adding a new dimension to her grief.

In many ways this is the model of a classic Robyn song—a dance-floor smash about heartbreak that explores and ultimately finds some redemption in melancholy. As Robyn and her fans know, her music is made for when only dancing can cure sadness. But both the lyrics and musical arrangement reflect a changed emotional landscape. For seven years, during her time off, Robyn undertook psychoanalysis, attending sessions several times a week. The pleasure and pain of “Missing U” represent more than just a return to form: Its psychic complexity amounts to a successful step into a bold new realm.

While Robyn has always been as influenced by club music as she has been by pop, Honey also marks a shift away from choruses and neat narratives, toward more experimentation with loops and atmospheric soundscapes. Sonically, it is perhaps her most challenging record—it contains beats so bleak and sparse they sound like water dripping in an empty hall, and euphoric moments that evoke showgirls sprinkling sequins on a glockenspiel. More importantly, the experience here feels far less resolved or contained than most of the songs on Body Talk or RobynHoney by comparison leaves room for interpretation and subjectivity.

Honey’s nine songs are split into two acts—the first five, anchored by “Missing U,” offer a portrait of a broken relationship that might or might not be fixed. The desires driving these songs are perhaps, as Robyn admits, old-fashioned—“All these emotions / Are out of date,” she sings in “Human Being”; “Nothing lasts forever / Not the sweet not the bitter / It’s a tired old record / I still play it anyway,” on “Because It’s In the Music.” But the raw expression of that desire supersedes her admission. She wants touch, forgiveness, and honest communication, and she’s not afraid to ask directly or to tell you to do the same. “If you’ve got something to say, say it right away.… If you’ve got somebody to love, give that love today,” she sings on “Send to Robin Immediately.”

Where, altogether, the first five songs add up to a darker mood, the sixth track, “Honey” marks a turning point. A luminous tribute to lust—“No, you’re not gonna get what you need / But baby, I have what you want / Come get your honey”—the soaring synth that opens the song sounds like psychic relief, or like sun on bare skin after a long winter. The direction of the desire is flipped. Now she’s not asking for anything; she’s got the honey that the listener wants. “Honey” is followed by three songs that continue this note of relaxed confidence—her phone’s on blast with a lover at her beck and call; she’s partying on the beaches of Ibiza without a care.

On “Ever Again,” the album’s closer, Robyn leaves the looping beats and returns to the pure dance pop that has become ubiquitous since she perfected the form on Body Talk. At first the song appears unusually optimistic—a jubilant celebration of new (or restored) love and the idea that heartbreak is a thing of the past. But while she’s dedicated plenty of time to getting to know herself in the years since her last album, what she hasn’t done is solve the unsolvable problem that propels the beginning of the album—the problem of other people and the pain they can cause. In an interview in May with Adam Bainbridge, who makes music as Kindness, and produced “Send to Robin Immediately,” she said her relationship with her analyst was her “one totally healthy” relationship.

Honey, in many ways, is a reckoning with both her self-discovery and some of the loneliness that has come with it. In “Missing U,” she’s mourning a lost relationship; in “Ever Again,” she’s proclaiming that she’s “Never gonna be brokenhearted ever again / I’m only gonna sing about love ever again.” We know—statistically speaking—that’s impossible, but, far from naive, the assertion feels well-earned by the time Honey concludes. Of course she’ll be brokenhearted again, but so will we, and for now we sing along anyway.

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