The reaction to Robyn’s return feels like a hero’s welcome. Heralded as one of pop’s most exciting innovators, she’s someone who, despite erratic chart success, has become something of a pop icon. It’s been eight years since Body Talk, a series of releases that became a major influence on 2010’s pop. Since then she’s stuck to collaborations — straying away from taking centre stage.
In a number of recent interviews, Robyn revealed the depth of her struggles, which resulted in the long wait for new material. After the death of her close friend and collaborator Christian Falk, and a relationship breakup, she suffered with depression and that led to intense therapy. She was also exhausted after the hectic Body Talk schedules. This kept her from doing what she loved: writing, producing and performing. Add in the pressure to follow-up her most critically-acclaimed work, it might be a miracle she’s found the strength to come back. Honey is more than worth the wait.
‘Missing U’, was the earliest song recorded and bridges the gap between Body Talk and Honey. It shares elements that made ‘Dancing On My Own’, ‘Indestructible’ and ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ such powerful heartbreak-at-the-disco classics. A beautiful trance-like synth arpeggio is joined by Robyn’s delicate voice as she yearns, “baby, it’s so real to me now it’s over”. She paints devastating pictures of loss and heartbreak — “all the love you gave me still defines me”. There’s something unresolved when Robyn doesn’t give the song the big chorus or release that she’s often done previously. Robyn stated she wanted to try different approaches and focus on vibes and atmospheres, thus not repeating herself.
The release of the title track brought relief for her fans. It had reached mythical status from a brief appearance in HBO’s Girls. Robyn poured everything into getting the final version right. It’s warm, soothing and completely natural. There’s a softness in the synths and throbbing bass that mixes with the emotive tone of her voice. Like ‘Missing U’, the huge chorus never arrives. Instead Robyn sensually teases, “no, you’re not gonna get what you need, but baby, I have what you want” as the luxurious instrumentation melts in the background. The drifting structure is a welcome callback to ‘Monument’ (with Röyksopp). The attention to detail in the production is breathtaking as hypnotic Art Of Noise ‘Moments In Love’ flourishes unfold.
On her last two albums she sometimes sang robotically and it was a recurring lyrical theme (‘Robot Boy’, ‘Fembot’). By contrast, she repeats, “I’m a human being” on the early-2000s minimal-pop-inspired ‘Human Being’. The dark electro-backing and skipping beat fits the personal lyric as she pleads, “baby don’t give up on me now”. ‘Baby Forgive Me’ is another darker moment. The weirdly off-key backing vocal and ominous organ make it addictively unsettling.
‘Beach2K20’ is a curious diversion with its use of gliding strings, a breezy samba rhythm and trippy spoken word verses. It’s somewhere between the last Niki & The Dove album and the tropical disco of Deee-Lite. Honey is a pop record at heart, but loose, off-kilter songs like these obviously weren’t designed for the charts. They recall the path Róisín Murphy explored on her last two albums, instead of remaking Overpowered.
Robyn has always found a way of putting a vibrant twist on her influences. The buoyant ‘Because it’s in the Music’ is rooted in 80s soul. The glittering synth explosions are heavenly coupled with the bouncing bass. The lyrics about the power of memories attached to music are deeply affective. ‘Between The Lines’ starts with a sparse electro rhythm until the appearance of a simple 90s house hook in the chorus (specifically an ode to Crystal Waters’ ‘Gypsy Woman’).
Robyn wraps up Honey with the incredible ‘Ever Again’. She sings, “I’m never gonna be brokenhearted ever again” with the same sweetness in her voice as 2005’s appealing ‘Be Mine’. Three minutes in, the new wave bass is embellished by beaming synths. After the subdued nature of the previous songs, it sounds euphoric and triumphant. Her optimism feels poignant given that she’s been so open about her hard times.
When Robyn left her label in 2004 to record music she believed in, she kickstarted the second phase of her career. She trusted her instincts and ended up making her best work, gaining a new audience and finding critical acclaim. On, Honey she has again trusted herself in a challenging time and made a beautifully paced and stunning return. Honey is full of surprises and perfectly encapsulates what makes Robyn such an exceptional artist.
Honey is out now on Konichiwa.