It is eight years since Robyn last released an album. This, naturally, is not considered best practice in pop music, a world where attention spans are short and memories shorter still: stay away too long, and on your return you’ll find some young pretender parked in the space you thought was reserved for you.
But Robyn established some time ago that the normal rules do not apply to her. Her last album opened with a track called Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do. And besides, she’s pulled off the curious trick of seeming present in pop even while absent. A recent Guardian profile listed a range of hits that bore her influence in recent years: songs by Ariana Grande, Lorde, Taylor Swift and Rihanna. In 2016, her album Body Talk’s biggest single, Dancing On My Own, returned to the charts, albeit in a version that unwittingly demonstrated the gulf between what its author does and pop’s more basic practitioners. Calum Scott’s cover gormlessly sandblasted away the original’s emotional complexity – a very realistic mix of despair, steely determination and euphoria – in favour of mournful bloke-at-a-piano emoting.
But the fans who joined the hashtag campaign #releasehoney in the hope that Robyn was about to come charging back in to the charts – and show pop’s more basic practitioners how it’s done with an unequivocal banger to match Dancing on My Own – were to be disappointed. “No, you’re not going to get what you need,” begins Honey’s title track, heralding the arrival of what seems to be Scandipop’s equivalent of Blood on the Tracks. If you want a more geographically adjacent comparison, a modern equivalent of the songs on which Abba picked apart their failing relationships in painful detail. The track is ostensibly languid and sexy, but under the surface it prickles with unease. The bassline chatters away restlessly, the synth sounds corrode into noise, and it never resolves into the huge chorus you expect. The overall effect is to add a sense of desperation to the come-hither lyrics: you get the feeling that whoever it’s aimed at has decided they aren’t interested, and the song’s protagonist knows it.
It sets the tone for an album which is never stingy with tunes, but on which the themes of heartbreak and despondency seem to have seeped into the songs’ sonic fabric. “There’s no resolution,” Robyn sings on Human Being, and she could be describing the music around her. Her vocals are cut adrift amid drones that bend out of tune; a beat that could have come from an old 80s freestyle track keeps failing and falling silent, and there’s a curious, lonely sound somewhere between the twang of an electric guitar and an industrial clank. On Baby Forgive Me, her vocal is haunted by a sinister, off-key electronic shadow. Somewhere in the distance there’s the muffled sound of an audience cheering: it’s as if they’ve been shut out.
The vocal continues imploring away on the following track, Send to Robyn Immediately, on which the backing brilliantly shifts into the unmistakable riff of Lil Louis’s late-80s house hit French Kiss, its heavy-breathing eroticism replaced by anguished pleading. The closest the album comes to raising a smile is closer Ever Again, a track covered in the fingerprints of collaborator Joseph Mount of Metronomy. Its warm, bass-led 80s pop tones and sweetly pretty tune carry a lyric about surviving by shutting oneself down emotionally.
Honey’s centrepiece may be Because It’s in the Music, a track that feels like the inverse image of Dancing on My Own, in which music offers no sense of escape or release: “I’m right back in that moment and it makes me want to cry,” she sings. The melody has the potential to feel anthemic, but it doesn’t, because the sound is weirdly fractured. The signifiers of euphoria – disco strings, tingle-inducing electronic shimmers, a lovely synth motif not a million miles removed from Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Forbidden Colours – never quite connect with each other: they’re scattered throughout the track and feel oddly lonely.
This track is also, pleasingly, the negative image of Scott’s cover of Dancing on My Own, a single that implied a song’s real gravitas and impact can only truly be revealed if you perform it in traditional, “authentic” singer-songwriter style. But, like the rest of Honey, Because It’s in the Music is a track on which the gravitas and impact comes as much from the way it manipulates the sonic palette of modern pop as the lyrics or melody. Whether the album ends up exerting the kind of influence over the Top 40 that her earlier releases did seems questionable – it feels almost too opaque and inward-looking for mass appeal. As evidence of a unique artist pursuing a personal vision in a world filled with the commonplace, however, Honey is perfect.
This week Alexis listened to
From the soundtrack to Killing Eve, a fantastic homage to 60s French pop, shot through with producer David Holmes’s characteristic darkness.