“I think being a woman, especially when you turn thirty, it puts perspective on a lot of things, you know. People expect things of you,” Robyn told us in her Progress Report interview. That was before any of Body Talk PT 1 was out in the open, except for “Dancehall Queen.” Now that we can hear, first hand, how age and gender show up across her album, it’s easy to say that no one’s addressed aging and being flawed on the dancefloor so well since, erm, last week, when James Murphy did it.
Of course a decade, a continent, and a gender separate them, and their voices (singing, of course, but also character voices) are very different. Well, maybe not so different, character-wise, on opener “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do,” the song Robyn called the important hard club track on her new record. She begins by listing the things bringing her down — “my drinking” “my smoking” “my diet” — before expanding to her job, her boyfriend, her email. Important to note, however, that it moves to her manager and her label too. Her last album was self-titled, but all of her work is, in a way: Robyn writes to her experience first. If “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do,” with its minimal keyboard hook and ghost synth textures, sets up room for the titular line as an anthem for the overworked and underpaid, well, then, that’s just a coincidence. Also worth noting: Half of what’s killing her is her.
If you’re looking for an analog to “Konichiwa Bitches,” the previously-sampled “Fembot” is it, and it’s the best reminder that we’ve got the same Robyn here. Her last album began with her resume, now she needs no introduction, but after years without new material, we might need the reminder. “Fembot”’s got the booty boasts, the robot backing voices, a whipsmart set of sexual metaphors of a piece with “Konichiwa Bitches.” But “Pull up in docking position / Pop the hatch and hit ignition” is so good you don’t need her ending sighs to know what’s going on here. This could have been the first single.
…Were it not for “Dancing On My Own,” Body Talk PT 1’s real centerpiece, and the song on which this whole LP or EP or whatever hangs on. Its Robyn equivalent is “With Every Heartbeat,” though it’s a harder-edged and (ultimately) lonelier track. “I love big sad pop songs. That’s where I naturally go. That’s the best,” Robyn admitted in the same Prog Rep interview. And, though she does swagger and boast very well, big sad pop songs are also where she’s the best. The storyline’s got Robyn trailing an ex-lover to a club to watch as he makes out with a new girl. Where “With Every Heartbeat” kept rising and rising, most of “Dancing On My Own” hums and hovers. Something about the constant synth sound puts you in Robyn’s stilettos: the dark club, the music so loud that you have to infer what the couple is saying, the agonizing. If you can’t decide whether you should dance or cry, just do what Robyn does in the song (both). On other tracks like “Dancehall Queen” and “None Of Dem” she was dancing alone by choice — and it’s an important choice. It’s amazing how she can exploit the act of dancing — the solo performance nearly everyone engages in — from something liberating to something so singularly lonely.
The first thing to notice is the warmth of the synths that back her vocals. It’s only a half-joke to say “Cry When You Get Older” is, lyrically, closer to something like “Don’t Stop Believing.” It’s directed to a boy and a girl in a small town (though this one’s in the strobe-not street-light). The titular line is Robyn’s advice to them, following “Love hurts / When you do it right.” Other observations: “I start out with good intentions / but mess it up like all the time,” “I need some kind of miracle / Because I’ve lost all my faith in science.” Not the a club track like what’s come before, but it’s a well-executed pop song about being young and leaving the suburbs behind. It’s about the kids, but it’s about her. The takeaway: She’s older, and she’s still making mistakes, she can just recognize them better. All her earlier and later boasts are more convincing because we get the other side as well.
Oddly, the songs that leaked first and that came with the biggest names attached are the album’s weakest. Diplo’s “Dancehall Queen” doesn’t completely back up Robyn’s swagger — she promises jaw-dropping, but it’s head-bopping at best. Not that Robyn doing some soft reggae isn’t appealing (note, too, that this song followed a conversation between Diplo and Robyn about Ace Of Base), it’s just that this feels extra hollow after the fullness of the preceding tracks. The echoes and stutters on Robyn’s vocals can’t compensate. The same goes for “None Of Dem” — it ramps up to a danceable beat, but none of it crescendos and explodes as it should (and as we observed). Again, if you’re going to complain about inadequate beats and bass lines, you’re kind of expected to deliver.
The dancing stops here. “Hang With Me” is all sighing strings and piano and open heart. On closer listen though, she’s really setting up the conditions for a friendship, not a relationship (hence the “hang”). The fast three-note arpeggio in the background of the song, something that bodes well for the “electric” counterpart to the “acoustic” tagged onto this song.
The album could have ended at “Hang With Me,” but Robyn includes a cover of the traditional Swedish folk song “Jag Vet En Dejlig Rosa.” Once again it’s just Robyn and a piano, and it feels like a lullaby or just a goodbye — it ends with (and this is a translation from the internet, so beware): “Farewell my dear beloved / 1000 times goodnight.” There’s video of her singing it at a memorial for the Asian tsunami victims, but maybe it’s a different goodbye in the context of Body Talk PT 1 — she arrived to the dance floor alone, and Robyn leaves the dance floor alone. And that’s only a metaphor if you never go out dancing. Important stuff happens out there, guys.
Body Talk PT 1 is out 6/15 via Konichiwa/Interscope/Cherrytree.
Hear it, in full: