Premature Evaluation: Robyn Honey
Eight years ago, Robyn declared that she was a fembot. Yes, she had feelings, too, but she was indestructible, she would dance on her own. On Honey, she lets that guard down. She makes it obvious on one of its first tracks: “I’m a human being/ And so are you/ My heart can’t stop beating/ Don’t know what to do.” The Robyn of before always had an answer — even amidst heartbreak, she’d be in the center of the club with tears lighting up her eyes, the beat of the music as the cure for all of life’s troubles.
Music is still a salve on Honey, but there’s a lot more darkness and uncertainty here than there was in the razor precise pop songs of Body Talk. It’s a warmer album than that trilogy’s European chilliness, but that warmth is a buffer against the cruel indifference of the world. It’s an album about loss and how to survive in the face of it. But it’s not approached with the flippant persona that Robyn often adopts — it’s a murkier, less assured type of survival. “There’s no resolution/ No honey gold,” she sings. “There’s no final union/ There’s no control.”
Robyn has been around since the mid-’90s, and in that time she’s represented a lot of different things to a lot of different people. She is an anathema to the vacuous major label pop system; she was also, for a time, a part of it, the progenitor to the Britney Spears-ification of pop music. To artists, she is a platonic ideal: universally respected and artistically fulfilled. In the last eight years especially, in the long absence since Body Talk, she’s grown into a very specific type of role. She’s become a meme of sorts — the infamous “Dancing On My Own” scene in Girls sums it up well enough. Robyn is the fixer. She listens and understands and will provide you with armor to weather the storm. She’s unassailable; she’s vulnerable but immutable. She’s not afraid to get deep into her emotions but she is resilient. She is tender. She is everything. Robyn has it all, you might think, even though the Swedish pop star has always been reticent to talk about her private life. Robyn might go through hardship, sure, but she will always win.
Honey is Robyn very definitively saying, no, I’m not all that. I’m not an avatar, I’m not a fembot. I’m just like you.
The genesis of Honey stems from a difficult loss: the death of Robyn’s frequent collaborator Christian Falk. Robyn had worked with Falk from the very beginning — he has credits on her 1995 debut — and the death hit her hard. After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Robyn and Markus Jägerstedt formed La Bagatelle Magique with Falk; their EP, one of the many offshoots Robyn has participated in since Body Talk, was released in 2015, a year after Falk’s death. A planned tour was cut short after one performance; those songs were still too painful to sing live. Honey’s lead single, “Missing U,” was originally written as a breakup song, but after Falk’s death it became tied with the dull ache of true forever loss.
Death has a way of coloring everything differently, from love relationships to friendships to the tenuous connection we have with our own minds. Shortly after Body Talk, Robyn entered therapy for the first time as a way to sift through how being famous from such a young age had affected her. A few years into that ongoing process, the loss of someone who had been there from the beginning must have been hard to reconcile, and it was surely impossible to get used to. The death of anyone close to you throws you for a loop; it shifts entire continents.
Honey is preoccupied with a lack of resolution. Just like a life can be suddenly cut off, these songs lack definitive endings. Appropriately enough, it takes its musical cues from club music, a form where often the longer a song goes on the better it becomes. Transcendent dance music is about locking into a groove and sticking with it, because in that groove maybe chaos starts to make a little bit of sense. Robyn has said that the bolt of inspiration for Honey, when it all started to come together, was at a club in Los Angeles, getting lost in an eight-minute DJ Koze song.
“When you’re listening to club music, there’s no reward,” she said in an interview. “The reward isn’t, ‘Oh, here’s the chorus, here’s the lyric that makes sense.’ You have to enjoy what it is. You have to enjoy that there’s no conclusion.”
That’s not to say that the songs on Honey are not rewarding. They are not the laser-focused songs of Robyn’s past, but they are indelible in their own right. There are no easy answers in life, just as there are none on Honey. Even at her most declarative, on closer “Ever Again,” she doesn’t deny complications, just resolves to not engage with them: “Never gonna be brokenhearted/ Only going to sing about love ever again.” Honey is presented, more or less, in the order it was written, and the narrative arc from “Missing U” through to the end provides little closure.
Honey is a luxuriant album — it’s patient and slow and methodical. Robyn’s cast of collaborators this time around includes Metronomy’s Joseph Mount and Kindness’ Adam Bainbridge. Neither musician is known for their driving urgency. But they fit in with the landscape of Honey, which has little interest in quick release. Each song sounds like the ticking of a clock. Robyn is crippled by the fact that there is not an infinite amount of time to say what she wants to say, but she wants to take her time to say it right. Bainbridge’s big contribution here is the slinking Lil Louise sample on “Send To Robin Immediately,” but the sample sounds like it’s playing out of a boombox underwater. It eschews simple pleasures for more depth. “If you’ve got something to say, say it right away,” Robyn sings on the song. “Know that you’ve got nothing to lose/ There’s no time to waste.”
There are no light songs on Honey. Even on its more upbeat tracks, Robyn sounds like she’s grown weary of trying to outrun time. “Nothing lasts forever/ Not the sweet, not the bitter,” she sings on her obligatory paean to music, the glittery “Because It’s In The Music.” The song is about listening to an old record and crying because it dredges up old memories, but that crying isn’t celebratory or cathartic, like it’s often been presented on past Robyn tracks: it’s just sad.
The closest thing to a party song is “Beach 2k20,” and it sounds nothing like a party. It oozes effortless cool, but it’s surprisingly lax about getting to the party. Robyn said it was inspired by Ibiza and that curious vacation clock where it feels like you have all the time in the world but all that time is running out quick. It’s an invitation to a sick party on the beach, a pulsating little squiggle propped up with iMessage trills and Robyn’s conversational ease. It’s maybe my favorite song on here, but it’s not going to light up any dance floors anytime soon, at least not the kind that Robyn populated before. It requires a shuffle, not a full-body commitment.
Similarly, the love songs on Honey are more painful, more pathetically lovesick: “You got the power, you set the prize/ But baby be fair, be nice/ You say you want to be happy/ Then you’ve got too much love on the line/ Just let me make you smile again, baby/ I know we can work it out/ Yes, I know we can/ Baby forgive me.” It’s a rarity for Robyn to prostrate herself like that; in the past she has usually been the victor, the one who holds all the cards in the end.
But the Robyn of 2018 is a different beast. Honey a deeply mature album, and it represents a musician that’s been radically transformed by loss. Robyn has gone through many permutations over the years, and Honey feels like her most considered. It represents the organic, the humanoid in place of the robotic. It took eight years of hard times, and as a result Honey is all flesh and blood — that of hearts pumping and racing and eventually stopping altogether.
Honey is out 10/26 via Konichiwa/Interscope.