Of the international collection of singers and performers who broke out during the mid-’90s ascension of Swedish producer and songwriter Max Martin — a cast that includes megastars Britney Spears, N’SYNC, and the Backstreet Boys — Robyn, the Scandinavian singer whose downtempo breakbeat love song “Show Me Love” breached the Hot 100’s single digit sector in the weeks between Backstreet’s “As Long As You Love Me” and JT and the boys’ “I Want You Back,” has had the strangest and perhaps the most critically buoyant career. The TRL kids made a mint recasting pop music as a parade of squeaky-clean imaging and latent hip-hop style, but that made them seem like product, an impression it would take years of bold creative and extracurricular gestures to shake. Robyn bristled at the suggestion that she ought to make music that sounded like everyone else’s. She has subsisted in the two decades since “Show Me Love” by wrestling for control of her career and then getting good and weird.
Robyn’s tenure as a major-label pop artist was troubled; for a few years, she made great records you could barely find outside of Sweden. The last straw was her label’s refusal to back the early ’00s single “Who’s That Girl,” a collaboration with Olaf and Karin Dreijer of the Knife, whose sophomore album Deep Cuts and its hit “Heartbeats” were released to hometown success and international acclaim in 2003. Robyn realized her arrangement with a major label gave someone else control over her art and bought herself out of her contract, releasing “Who’s That Girl” and her excellent self-titled album independently on her own Konichiwa Records. Since then, she’s been doing what she wants when she wants. You might get three projects in the span of a year; you might get nothing for five years. This week, Robyn follows her last full-length, 2010’s Body Talk, and quality EP-length releases backed by Scandinavian producers like Mr. Tophat, Royksopp, and Christian Falk, with album number eight, the slight, saccharine Honey.
Honey is a peculiar title for this specific batch of songs. In pop and R&B, honey is a signifier of thickness, sensuality, and impossible sweetness. Consider the Erykah Badu, Fiona Apple, Mariah Carey, and Ohio Players records that have invoked the stuff, songs about hot, heavy longing with arrangements that often match their lyrics in evoking viscosity and robustness. When you get past the lead single “Missing U” — which opens the album revisiting the effervescent synths and deceptively chipper vocals of Body Talk’s cry-in-the-club hits “Dancing on My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend,” like the recap at the beginning of a television season premiere — Honey spreads itself shockingly thin. It’s a 40-minute exercise in bare-bones melodicism, the kind of svelte, downtempo tracks you pop on in the ride home from a function, smiling wryly as dawn breaks, and whatever’s in your system from the night wears off. “Because It’s in the Music” and “Baby Forgive Me” let the bass carry the melody, splashing keys over top of sparse post-disco rhythm sections like garnish. Honey trades in hollowed-out, hypnotic sounds in the same way that early ’80s R&B staples like Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” avoided any elements that didn’t drive the groove forward.
Honey’s hollowness is more than an aesthetic choice. The music follows a period of upheaval for Robyn. The loss of her longtime collaborator Christian Falk and some rocky spots in her relationship with director Max Vitali source some of the late-night yearning here. “Missing U” is a poignant lyric about coping with the suddenness of loss, the jolt you feel when someone you care about abruptly becomes a piece of your past, and you fight to keep them alive in your mind in memories. “Send to Robin Immediately” builds to an ominous verse about settling unfinished business while you still have time: “If you got something to say, say it right away / If you got something to do, do what’s right for you / If you got somebody to love, give that love today.” Between these examinations of the phantom pain of loss are songs about nurturing surviving relationships while you still can. “Baby Forgive Me” seeks reconciliation after turmoil; “Honey” and “Beach 2k20” excitedly plot to sweep a lover off his feet when he gets home.
“Human Being” is the beating heart of this collection. Honey is, at its core, a series of observations about the places our minds go in the dark of the night, the processes we can’t shake when we’re alone with our thoughts. Humans are hubristic creatures whose greatest achievements have given us the sense that we can, where it serves us best, set aside our primal, emotional natures and work objectively toward the greater good. Thing is, in the throes of love and loss, our emotions come calling unexpectedly. We can’t schedule torment. We can’t stifle longing. We can try to wrangle with them, to work through them. Robyn deadpanning “I’m a human being” in the middle of a batch of songs about allowing herself to hang out and feel whatever her heart needs her to is a mature assessment of the experience of growing up. We can’t be perfect. We have to suffer. We eventually die. Honey is masterful because it works both as a stunning document of human frailty and a feathery soundtrack to moonlit swooning, depending on how closely you’re willing to engage it. The depth and effortlessness here are reasons to let gifted creatives process art and life at whatever pace they want. Honey might not be syrupy in its arrangements, but it still lives up to the name: like bees processing pollen and nectar, Robyn makes coarse, painful elements seem enticing and even sweet.