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Robyn: The Best Thing In Pop Today

September 29, 2010

I’ve found something to like about nearly all of the (legal) pop singers making headlines today. It’s definitely not my favorite style of music, but thanks to nearly constant exposure by Mrs. theGeek, I catch glimpses of talent in the music made by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Kylie Minogue, and (to a lesser extent) Lily Allen and Pink. They all have their strengths and weaknesses and are certainly not to be blithely written off as entirely disposable.

But there is one artist. One who stands head and shoulders above her contemporaries. One who displays a level of talent, panache, and sincerity that cannot be matched by these other “divas.” One who eschews visual affectations and generally lets the music speak for itself. An underdog whose long, slow climb to where she is today has given her the balance and patience she’ll need to survive into what is sure to be a long and successful career. She is Robyn, a 31-year-old pop artist originally from Sweden.

RobynYou may remember her from a mild hit in the late 90’s called “Show Me Love,” a pretty standard dance-pop song from the Age of Britney. It was…okay, with a very Calvin-Klein-ad video, but not particularly notable despite being a Billboard Top 10 track in 1997.

Robyn released two albums in Europe between 1998 and 2004 with virtually no US distribution. After a disagreement over artistic direction led to a split with Jive Records, Robyn started her own label, Konichiwa Records, and has been releasing albums and singles steadily since 2005. Her new material has a decidedly electro-pop sound, more aggressive than the dance-pop of Britney and Christina, less peek-a-boo than Kylie, bringing together elements of house and hip-hop.

Her comeback (for lack of a better word) album was 2005’s Robyn. It’s hard to overstate the, well…understatedness of the production. There’s a lot of air in these tracks, eschewing the slick, lush production of her peers. Many songs are based on simple drum beats and a single synthesizer hook. The album opens with brassy tracks like “Konichiwa Bitches” and a cover of the Teddybears’ “Cobrastyle.” Then it moves on to subtler fare with clever lyrics like the I’m-too-much-for-you dis of “Handle Me” and the ultra-sarcastic “Bum Like You.” These are all great tracks, but then you hit songs like “Be Mine” and “With Every Heartbeat.” These two songs are prime examples of what sets Robyn apart. There is an adventurous, damn-the-torpedoes riskiness to the production here. (In the latter case, it is largely due to a collaboration with Swedish electr0- and synthpop producer Kleerup, whose eponymous 2008 debut is also quite good.) “Be Mine” opens with a pulsing, “Eleanor Rigby” cello pitted against Robyn’s vocals until the simple, distinctly electronic kick-kick-snare joins up halfway through the first verse. But again, the song never clears a certain level of bombast. Where Kylie or Madonna might be inclined to crank everything to 11 during the chorus (just to let the listener know that it is, in fact, the chorus), Robyn’s instinct, in most cases, is to dial it back or at least maintain the same level of intensity, as though she means for the change in lyric or melody to delineate the different sections of the song. It’s an approach that sounds fresh to these tired ears.

After riding the success of the Robyn LP for the requisite number of years, Robyn announced in early 2010 that her new material was going to be released in relatively quick succession on a trio of mini-albums to be named Body Talk (Parts 1, 2, and 3). Part 1 was released in the US on June 15, 2010 and Part 2 was released earlier this month.

I’m happy to report that I have listened to Body Talk Part 1 at least once a day since I got it. Apart from the opening track, “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do” (a forgivable misstep), the whole record is wonderful. “Fembot” is a return to the brashness of the Robyn LP’s first few tracks. The song sports a clever rhyming scheme clearly inspired by hip-hop and kicks a playful, vocoded chorus, “My system’s in mint condition / The power’s up on my transistors / Working fine, glitches / Plug me in and flip some switches / Pull up in docking position / Pop the hatch and hit ignition / B-B-Burn out, baby / Ready for demolition.” Tracks like “Dancing On My Own” and “None of Dem” are clear club favorites, the latter featuring a collaboration with Norwegian techno virtuosos Röyksopp. Hell, I even like the nü-reggae groove of “Dancehall Queen.” The lady sure knows how to write a catchy chorus.

Body Talk Part 1 features an acoustic (vocal & piano) version of “Hang With Me,” a paean to the much maligned concept of the “friend zone.” In this genre, tracks like this are the true test of an artist’s mettle. Robyn can really sing. She has performed stripped-down, acoustic arrangements of many of her songs on various talk shows and awards presentations, and has released an EP of similar arrangements of songs from Robyn called The Cherrytree Sessions. What’s notable about “Hang With Me” is that a full electro-pop version of the song is available on Body Talk Part 2, and I am hard pressed to name which version I like better.

(The little smile at 2:33 just kills me.)

On Part 2, Robyn is definitely letting her Euro flag fly; these tracks have a distinctly European dance club feel. The exultant “In My Eyes,” head-bobber “Include Me Out,” and pulsing, Pet Shop Boys-esque “Love Kills” feature some delicious synth bleeps and bloops.

I wish I’d had more time with Part 2 before I started writing this review so I could give a more in-depth analysis. But I love what I’ve heard so far. If you need a pop fix and want to hear someone at the top of their game, check out Robyn.

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