Music

Robyn’s Honey Is a Balm

The long-anticipated new album may not have the sugar-rush highs we want, but its healing powers are what we need.

The cover of Robyn's new album, Honey. Robyn is lying on her chest in lingerie, looking forward.
Konichiwa Records

Like so many fans, I’d been eagerly awaiting the release of Swedish dance-pop auteur Robyn’s new album, Honey, her first full-length work in eight years. I’d craved another immersion in the salty springs of that unique Robyn feeling, chilly at the surface but warming underneath—music about taking such full possession of your own sadness that it transports you to unsuspected joys. She gets there in part by setting hurtling-forward dance beats and melodies against the equally unrelenting emotional nerve of her voice and lyrics, as in songs like “Dancing on My Own,” “Be Mine!”, “Call Your Girlfriend,” and “With Every Heartbeat.” That momentum carries the listener out past the bounds of inhibition, into another zone. Mind, if it were that simple, everybody would do it. And many have tried, with the likes of Taylor Swift, Lorde, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Charli XCX having plainly striven to emulate the force of 2005’s Robyn and especially 2010’s Body Talkeven though she hasn’t had a single song chart on the U.S. Hot 100 since 1998.

Still, when I first put on Honey this weekend, I could not feel the old salve. It wasn’t that her music had changed, though it had in intriguing ways. It was that the week had been too much. There had been the scattering of unexploded pipe bombs across the doorsteps of the supposed enemies of the people (but really of the president), and then the terrorist massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the denials from above that mean the horrors won’t stop. Meanwhile, I had spent part of the week at private mourning gatherings that reunited complex shards of past and present, which left me lonely for everyone I’ve ever lost to death or disconnection, and lamenting losses that haven’t come yet. It felt absurd to try throwing songs at those feelings, let alone then throwing my words about those songs at the closing-in walls of the world.

Yet that dilemma in many ways is just what Honey is about: getting past the silencing power of loss. Robyn began her career in the mid-1990s as a teen-pop protégée of producers such as Max Martin. But despite a couple of international hits, she proved less pliable than the industry wanted, and Martin moved along to Robyn 2.0, aka Britney Spears. (Robyn recently said that Martin has told her artists now constantly bring copies of Body Talk into his studio, saying, “I wanna make this,” which she found “sweet.”) She followed with a series of self-reinventions that made her an ambassador for pop’s richness as an art form and a patron saint for anyone who’s ever found salvation on the dance floor, especially in LGBTQ dance clubs, where her dancing-while-crying anthems joined the noble line of soul, disco, and house songs that transmute suffering into communal celebration. But after the astounding productivity of her Body Talk period in her early 30s, a breakup and the death of her longtime collaborator Christian Falk sent her spinning and questioning whether she wanted to carry on making music. It was a long route to piecing herself together, let alone these nine songs.

Honey follows the arc of those years and that recovery. It opens with “Missing U,” which stretches its arms out into a palpable emptiness—“this part of you, this clock that stopped/ This residue, it’s all I’ve got.” Musically, this is one of the closest tracks on the album to a prototypical Robyn banger, but even here the shimmering synth runs are more elongated than they would have been eight years ago, less insistent, falling instead like scatterings of rain so that Robyn can wander between them and take the time to observe and absorb. The album goes further into slow motion until it reaches a kind of central stillness with “Honey,” a song she’s said took her four years to finish. It’s more languid than the version that was previewed on an episode of HBO’s Girls in March of 2017—the way its beat buzzes and rolls somehow synesthetically suggests the feeling of reaching over and over into a honey pot and pulling your hand nearly free of the sticky goo before letting it suck you in again. And this kind of push-and-pull is a sonic signature of the album, as if evoking the way that grief lets us go only gradually, never cleanly, always leaving residue.

It was this dynamic, quite distinct from the levitating magic that prevailed on Body Talk, that I gradually learned to understand as I listened to Honey. I learned to let it into my chest and the base of my spine, to rock with it as if on a small craft in the waves—at first as if self-soothing for anxiety, then in the album’s later songs, more sensually, more erotically. This record is much more about process, about working through blockages, than about the transports of earlier Robyn songs, though they’re here too, especially in the climactic “Ever Again,” which raises a toast to that newfound resiliency as a kind of superpower. (“Never gonna be brokenhearted ever again,” she declares, tongue darting in and out of cheek). Gradually, the healing Robyn herself found through this music became contagious.

On the Girls episode that hinted this album was coming, the last words Adam Driver spoke over Robyn’s sighs were “If it hurts, you’ll always remember.” Those could be a lyric from Honey—for instance, from perhaps my favorite track here, “Because It’s in the Music,” which over a Blondie-meets–Donna Summer disco pulse and strings describes being haunted by a piece of music: “They wrote a song about us/ It’s called something like ‘Stardust’/ And on the day they released it/ Same day, you released me/ Even though it kills me/ I still play it every night.” She wonders whether her absent lover hears the song the way she does. It’s a cheeky flex in the first place to claim that “Stardust,” Hoagy Carmichael’s 90-year-old American Songbook standard, was written about you (the heartbroken are so vain). More brazen yet, as “It’s in the Music” plays—like almost every song about a song, including “Stardust” itself—it expands to displace the original and become the very song it’s talking about, its own object of mourning, a Proustian cookie to be seasoned with future tears by Robyn-loving lovers.

This is emblematic of Honey, less the takeoff ramp of Robyn albums past than a spiral slide down into more profound depths. Not to say the ride’s not fun, for instance in the woozy house jam “Send to Robin Immediately” (based on 1989’s intoxicating club hit “French Kiss”) or the utterly silly, texting-in-Ibiza electro-samba, “Beach2k20.” But it is a record by a 39-year-old woman—though one who still loves to dance—and part of its potency comes from not posturing otherwise.

That also makes Honey an occasion to appreciate Robyn’s unusual career longevity for a woman in pop, at a time when many of the superstar divas of the past decade-plus have been faltering. She’s in the footsteps of Madonna, although a Madonna without mainstream hits seems like a contradiction in terms. In fact, a lot of Robyn’s career seems impossible from the vantage point of American pop. How was it possible for her to reject the commercial path while still barely out of her teens (in order to keep two songs about abortion on her second album!) and come back from it to start her own label and control her own destiny? How could she dare to take nearly eight years off when she seemed on the brink of mass breakthrough? And in less practical terms, how did she pinpoint that spot between darkness and light that’s her emotional specialty?

I think her aesthetic blends what she drew from her teen-pop years with her family background, touring as a child with parents who were part of an itinerant experimental theater troupe called Scheherazade. But her freedom to explore it on her terms also seems distinctively Scandinavian. True, without black American culture, Robyn’s own dance music couldn’t exist, and being white eased her way with the indie and electronic gatekeepers that dubbed her an artist’s artist in the 2000s—but I’m also talking about the social policies that allow these peoples so associated with Ingmar Bergman–style winter darkness of the soul to report themselves among the world’s most contented and secure. Robyn’s radical career moves bespeak that security; as a Canadian, I’ve seen how access to public health care alone widens artists’ range of choices. And in Sweden, music is a particular beneficiary of social largesse. Ever since ABBA (whose happy-sad music is a direct precedent to Robyn’s) made the country realize music could be a major export, Sweden has poured tons of subsidies into the field, which is part of why Max Martin and other Swedes became such international studio magi.

Scandinavia is far from a utopia—witness the situations of the region’s immigrants and minorities—but the spirit in Robyn’s music, of utopian potential despite life’s vexations, partly springs from her society’s aspirations, as it does for her Nordic peer Björk. Maybe that’s part of why this record proved to be a fairly effective balm for my worldly despair. There are changes that could lower the pressure that’s leading so much of the American public (and others around the world) into such dangerous nihilism. They’re hard, not impossible. As the line from the Jewish teachings of the Pirkei Avot that’s been quoted widely since Saturday’s temple attack goes, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” Or, as Robyn sings on “Human Being,” the second song here, “There’s no resolution/ No honey gold/ There’s no final union/ There’s no control,” but there is “one step at a time. … Don’t give up on me now.”