Monday, October 29, 2018

album review: 'honey' by robyn

Even before I knew I was a fan of pop music - hell, before I even had firm context surrounding what pop music was - I was a fan of Robyn.

And yes, I know that's a bizarre thing for me to say, especially coming from someone not from Europe and who only got passing snippets of what Robyn creating in the late 90s and 2000s... but we did get a few pieces, and the majority of them have held up amazingly well. I'll freely admit that when I was a child and heard 'Show Me Love' I didn't have the slightest clue who Robyn was - and let's be honest, most folks who were adults in North America didn't know either, her distribution and name-recognition stateside has always been shaky - but I knew the song connected on a fundamental level. Fast forward over a decade later and I'm hearing 'Dancing On My Own' in HBO's Girls and while the vocal timbre had subtly changed, the ridiculously intricate and tight pop music remained the same. And that prompted me to go back through whatever albums in her back catalog I could find and it's honestly a little astonishing how consistently great Robyn has been. There have been missteps - I might be one of the few people who find the hip-hop elements on the self-titled album to have aged pretty badly and hurt the album as a whole - but for the most part I've been a consistent fan of her terrific sensibility around melodic grooves and her remarkably keen sense of emotional dynamics.

And thus the past eight years where we haven't had full Robyn albums... well, it's been a long wait. Yes, I heard those EPs with Royksopp and La Bagatelle Magique, but they felt compromised, not nearly the clear organic creative vision I knew Robyn could deliver, and thus I was thrilled to get a chance to hear her newest project, Honey - was it everything we could have hoped for and more?

Okay, there's the thing: for all intents and purposes Robyn gave us a quality pop album. The production is sleek but bubbling and gentle enough to feel organic, the melodies are varied but well-balanced, and there's enough being pulled from gentler electronics to imply a very tasteful listening experience... and I wish I could say it was great. Yeah, bit of a bait and switch with this one, but I can't help but feel that for pop, this album might go down easy but just doesn't deliver much impact or sparkle for me. Don't get me wrong, it's a comfortable listen and will inevitably soundtrack a lot of pretty good parties I'll attend in the next month or two, but I'd struggle to say it rises to greatness, and coming from Robyn, that is a disappointment.

And what's exasperating is that Robyn is so damn good at melodic composition that I want to praise this album a lot more. I've always liked how she straddles the line in her vocal line from plainly emotive to the slicker polish we heard in the late 90s that makes her sound like a unique entity despite the synthetic touches, and I've always loved her commitment to more intricate and interesting grooves. The grainy low-end knock to 'Missing U', the pulsating electronic punch of 'Send To Robin Immediately', how much both 'Because It's In The Music' and 'Ever Again' make terrific use of great basslines that almost call back to her pop-R&B roots, and then there's 'Honey', unquestionably the best song here and while it's a bit dated from hearing an earlier version on the finale of Girls, I still really like it here with the brighter synthline and more prominent, multi-tracked vocals. Hell, whenever we get hints of the glitzier synthpop that I've loved from Robyn in the past, I'm entirely onboard... but that's also not really what this album is, especially when you start digging into the construction of the songs. If anything, it's a lot closer to electronic music, specifically 90s house - hell, they even get the analog synthesizers out for 'Beach2k20' with more of a samba rhythm, and when you realize that some cuts might only have one verse or hook before letting the instrumental ride, it becomes a different sort of experience.

And I'll say it right now, I'm just not as much of a fan of it in comparison to Robyn's pop side. Part of this is because her hooks can be so layered and impressive on a melodic level, and when you get a song like 'Human Being' with its drippier melody, it just doesn't evolve in the same way or change up - thankfully 'Baby Forgive Me' does this on its second hook, but even that cut feels underwritten. And that becomes a similar vibe that permeates 'Between The Lines' and 'Beach2k20' - not bad dance or house songs, but they lack the deeper immediacy and well of dramatic emotion that Robyn has always brought to her best pop songs. But even with that, this is not an album that deals in the extremes of emotion, lying closer to the small sophistipop revival in recent years with muted, bubbling tones and a slightly more retro vibe - I don't think anyone could deny the album has consistency and flow and good taste. But the problem is that it doesn't really modulate out of that groove, and the powerful emotional highs that Robyn has delivered before just don't materialize - and yes, I know part of this is because I'm not really a fan of house music to the same extent, but I'd also like to think that she could have pushed these songs in more layered or intricate directions. And then there's some production choices which I just don't like, such as that weird hum that seems ever so slightly off-key on 'Human Being', or how the electronic pitch-shifted vocals on 'Baby Forgive Me' feel very much off key in their resolving note and really only serve to distance the listener from a song that might have gotten more out of minimalism and intimacy.

And that takes us to the content... where for a change of pace with Robyn, there doesn't seem to be much to say. What I've liked about her pop songwriting in the past are the fresh spins she takes on tired concepts to add more nuance, and when you hear that this record follows the loose arc of her breakup and reconciliation with her own partner, I was hoping for a few more details to flesh out the picture. And for the first few songs there's potential: 'Missing U' touches not just on post-breakup blues but also the dazed sense of confusion that comes with that person no longer being in your life and the weird psychic wound of their absence, and 'Because It's In The Music' is a great little cut focusing on the complicated feelings that come through when you share a song with an ex-partner, and I really dug that. But by the midsection of this album when it moves into 'Baby Forgive Me' and the eventual return, the complexity of the writing seems to slip away - yeah, the metaphors of 'Honey' do the job but after that the songs just feel lyrically undercooked. And then there's 'Ever Again', and while I like the composition and groove and vocal production, I'm always wary when someone throws up how she'll never be brokenhearted again - I appreciate Robyn's optimism which flows well with maturity, but it's the sort of song that tempts fate in the same way Ariana Grande's interlude 'pete davidson' did, that's all.

But in the end... look, I'll admit that for listeners who come from more of a house or electronic music background this'll probably satisfy plenty, and Robyn certainly sounds comfortable in this lane. But in terms of the music, it just doesn't grab me as deeply - again, very tasteful, very easy music to like but I wouldn't say I love it, netting a light 7/10 from me and a recommendation, but a qualified one. And it's weird that I can look to Robyn's descendants in this brand of synthpop like Carly Rae Jepsen or especially Shura and find more that grips me in terms of writing and hooks, but hey, if this is the direction Robyn wants to go, all the power to her - it's still good music, and was still mostly worth the wait.

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