“I’m a human being,” insists a small, sad voice, floating amid melancholic synths and buzzing sound effects over a spaced-out beat. It would be a cold-blooded listener who could deny this plaintive assertion on the maverick star Robyn’s (very) long-awaited sixth album, Honey. Across 10 tracks of ultra-modern dance music, she takes listeners on a journey from vulnerable heartbreak to love reborn, beautifully reminding us that flesh-and-blood-emotion is the essential ingredient of great pop.
Robyn Carlsson has a critical reputation, fan devotion and peer respect greatly outweighing her commercial impact. Signed as a 15-year-old ingénue in 1994, she is big in her native Sweden (a country that knows a thing or two about pop), but has only notched up a handful of international hits (With Every Heartbeat was number one in the UK in 2007 but Robyn hasn’t charted in the US since Show Me Love in 1997).
Yet her bold but sweet NinetiesEuropop was a direct prototype for Britney Spears, while the blend of effervescent melody, techno beats and emotionally acute lyrics to be found in her 2000s synth-pop set a template for the EDM generation, influencing everyone from Rihanna to Taylor Swift. Following her acclaimed 2010 album Body Talk, however, Robyn faded from view, coping with the death of a friend and a break-up (and subsequent reunion) with her fiancé.
Middle age is a difficult transition for a pop star. Yet at 39, it feels like Honey could be the moment Robyn gets her due as an artist in complete command of her medium. Deftly sketched lyrics of relationship travails glide across irresistible beats on gossamer melodies, driven by nimble bass figures, sparkling synthetic strings and off-kilter, earworm noises.
Because It’s in the Music evokes the bittersweet addictiveness of pop, memorialising a break-up tune (“The day they released it/ Was the day you released me/ And even though it kills me/ I still play it every night”).
Halfway through the album, she switches audaciously, between the sadness of Baby Forgive Me to the dynamic empowerment of Send to Robyn Immediately, when the same lyric is transformed from plea to ultimatum (“If you’ve got something to say/ Say it tonight”). From there, the only way is up, on a journey through sensual reconciliation (Honey) and joyous romance (Between the Lines) playing out on the delightfully buoyant Ever Again (“never gonna be broken-hearted, ever again”).
Robyn is not a vocalist given to diva-style over-singing but the feeling in her songs is utterly transparent. “All these emotions are out of date,” she gently laments on Human Being – but real emotion never gets old. Honey is moving in more senses than one, a hypnotically groovy dance floor opus, set to the beat of Robyn’s tender heart.