why robyn’s 'honey' is a solid contender for album of the year
On her first solo record in eight years, Robyn rediscovers herself.
There’s a moment halfway through the second verse on the fourth track on Robyn’s new album, Honey, Baby Forgive Me, where the Swedish popstar jumps octaves into a heady falsetto. It’s the sonic equivalent of your consciousness detaching from the aches and pains of the body and soaring into the clouds, flying higher and higher in search of peace.
The song itself is an electronic ballad about absolution, Robyn crying out to someone for forgiveness as she begs them to put their love out into the ether and try again. “I know we can work it out,” she sings blissfully, “yes, I know we can.”
In the past, Robyn’s search for euphoria and understanding was pegged to hard, industrial four-to-the-floor beats and smatterings of arpeggiated synthesisers. When she re-launched her global solo career in 2007 with the majestic With Every Heartbeat, she constructed a musical cocoon that she would inhabit for over half a decade, pulses of electronics paired with her gift for emotional punches. Like a defensive shield she pushed her pain into bangers like Who’s That Girl and Body Talk’s Dancing On My Own and Call Your Girlfriend, utilising the robotic blips and bass to form an identity: she was a fembot but with feelings too.
Over the last eight years, Robyn’s career flourished and her music took on a life of its own, existing outside of the confines of pop trends and commercial success. It was influential without being inescapable, and she developed a global cult following with fans dedicating club nights to the power of her heartbreak pop. But personally she took some hits: her relationship ended and her dear friend and collaborator Christian Falk passed away. As she explained to the New York Times, it was time to reboot; the pain could no longer be danced away.
In interviews, Robyn has spoken extensively about this process of rediscovery and how she went to therapy and took her time to understand and learn about her feelings. “I was so emotional that everything I did became too messy,” she told Entertainment Weekly, explaining that the she “wanted to be affected by other things than my own idea of the world”. “I wanted to find something softer,” she added, “that’s why I started therapy and made the other [joint] records before Honey… I tried to explore other moods and feelings.”
The best way to understand Robyn’s reconstruction, however, is to listen to Honey. For an album that sits at just nine tracks, it’s almost turgid with feelings, wisps of emotion leaking from it like tendrils of smoke. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful recalibration of her musical universe and it aches with the catharsis of rediscovering your identity.
Album opener and lead single Missing U eases you in sonically, cascading bells, padded synths and stomping beats. It’s a song that began its life years ago, but couldn’t be finished until Robyn could “access” the emotions needed. Sonically, it bridges the thrusting electropop of Body Talk, softening the edges to encompass the song’s narrative, which focuses on the loss of her relationship and the death of her friend.
It’s a song that gives birth to the fractured rawness of the album’s first half. On Human Being, the robotic armour of the past is scattered on life’s battlefield, the soft echoes of “I’m a human being” almost questions the soft whirr of the production, which sounds like a battery recharging. Similarly, Because It’s In the Music and its inflections of disco takes what Robyn’s most well known for, heartache on the dancefloor, and inverts it, stripping away the industrial-sized production for sparse explosions of synths and austere strings. Like paving stones that have baked in the sun, the music feels unbearable for Robyn to stand on as she sings, “I’m right back in that moment and it makes me want to cry.”
Resolution begins perhaps on Baby Forgive Me and its air of spiritual detachment. Opening with a deadpan vocal delivery, Robyn’s vocals start to grow in strength as the song’s dance music references — pads, cowbells and beats — slowly swell. Then, at 2:12, that octave jump arrives and it’s as though the clouds break. Like a successful algorithm finding its sequencing, the fibres of identity start to weave into place. The Kindness-produced, Lil Louis-sampling Send to Robyn Immediately pushes this process into a tunnel, expediting it like a magical healing balm.
The summit is reached on the album’s title track, the mythological Honey. It’s a song with power and warmth that coalesces aspects of Robyn’s past and future like a magnet. The synths sound like they’re submerged under water as they follow the hypnotic light of the hi-hat and the sonic pulse of the beat. Like a living thing, the song breathes, giving equal emphasis to the highs and the lows, ins and outs. There’s no real conclusion; the song’s journey is the pay off, and like life, it aches and swells with a purifying reconnection of love, sex and pain, pinning Robyn’s humanity back together.
From then on, the album becomes more playful. Between The Lines displaces the comfort of Honey with dissonant synths, recalling 90s house but with added sensuality. Robyn’s airy vocals lack the weight from the album’s first act by flirting with the production. The same goes for Beach2k20, the album’s most experimental moment. Finally, after so much hurt, Robyn is able to say: “Let’s go party.”
The sensuality and gaiety of the album’s second act culminates on the resolute Prince-inspired Ever Again. Eschewing the realism of the album’s painful trajectory of healing, the song’s defiant chant that she’s “never going to be brokenhearted ever again” shakes off any sense of pathos. Robyn’s sadness, her loss, her loneliness are no longer the signifiers of her identity as she sings, “That shit’s out the door”. What’s left isn’t necessarily positivity or even happiness, but instead a reconstructed human being whose soul was scattered. Like the Japanese art and philosophy of kintsugi, the breakages are on display, shining with gold to honour their history.
Robyn’s music resonates because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly. And Honey is no different. Her experience is just a specific example of the burnout and bereavement that afflicts us all; it’s a part of the human condition. She understands, too, that the future is not secure — the assertion of “ever again” is an oxymoron; she can’t know. It’s why the album is named after Honey; thanks to the ebb and flow of life, who you are at a given moment lacks any semblance of stability. When we lose ourselves to grief and heartache, the person that emerges on the other side is a product of that journey. It’s what Honey is so intent on showcasing: the road you take as you move along in life is what’s important because the destination is so unknown. It’s scary and you might fall apart along the way, but it’s like Robyn says: down in the deep is where it’s sweeter. So come get your honey, baby.