Look, part of the appeal of Robyn is the persona. When the Swedish pop star released her self-titled album in 2005, she depicted herself not only as a badass label-head, but the “world record holder with a high score of two bazillion in Tetris, two time recipient of the Nobel Prize for Super-Foxiest Female Ever, and wartime consigliere to the Cosa Nostra.” She made it very clear that you couldn’t handle her, but that she might waste her time with you anyway, and, if you were lucky, she would cum in your mouth and make it delicious. All the romantic smack-talk could have been a veiled metaphor for her actual monumental achievements—ditching her label, Jive, when they balked at her single with The Knife, “Who’s That Girl;” founding Konichiwa Records purely to release her own music; then getting worldwide distribution for it. Regardless, it worked. Every music geek that came across her path seemed to fall for Robyn—not, I’m convinced, because of her forward-thinking pop music (though that certainly helped), but because she hit the perfect soft spot in the male rock crit psyche: Tell me I’m not good enough for you. Tell me all night long. I BELIEVE YOU. Like the cliché says, dudes wanted her, women wanted to be her. Thus, she insured her maybe true/maybe not reputation of being the pop star that indie kids love, but charts don’t. When Robyn began releasing her Body Talk EPs in May, with the help of five years’ advancement in social media, she became a pop creature purely of our time: over-exposed on the internet, underrated everywhere else.
Body Talk, the album composed from songs off the three EPs she released over the course of the year, could have easily been an extension of Robyn’s Robyn persona. In some places, it is. “U Should Know Better,” a late-album duet with Snoop Dogg, ends the title’s sentence with “than to fuck with me.” Opener “Fembot” twists the persona a bit, as she plays a deeply sensual robot that uses Khia’s “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” as a mission statement. Robyn follows that with a laundry list of grievances—“My drinking is killing me,” “My smoking is killing me,” and my girlfriend’s favorite, “My boyfriend is killing me”—riling herself up into a fit of, ultimately, good advice: “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do.” For the most part, though, Robyn keeps “Robyn” under wraps. She doesn’t need to telegraph the fact that she’s a badass any more. Instead, she concentrates on enriching her songs musically and emotionally, and the result is an album full of hard-bodied techno pop with a staggering amount of lived-in pathos.
Musically, Body Talk is handled by Robyn and frequent collaborator Klas Åhlund, along with guest producers Röyksopp, Kleerup, Diplo, Patrik Berger, and pop impresario Max Martin, who produced Robyn’s breakout hit “Show Me Love” back in 1996. Together, they build a foundation of crisp drum machine ticks, thunderous bass, and delightfully restrained synths. Without vocals, Body Talk still could have been the best minimal techno album of the year, and it operates under similar rules as one. There’s not a lot of variation between songs, musically or vocally—even Diplo’s Jamaican nod, “Dancehall Queen” lives within the same world as the straight pop songs. Robyn reuses melodies with only slight adjustment, and many of the songs share similar composition. The repetitiveness might have tanked a lesser artist’s album, but Robyn comes out of it with an album containing as many as ten heavy-hitters that, overall, feels tightly-coiled rather than claustrophobic. It works because she nails the details—the balance between pop and hip-hop on “U Should Know Better,” for example; or the wound-up chorus of “Hang With Me;” or the relentless pulse of “Dancing On My Own.”
Robyn’s commercial prospects are better than ever. While she’s been refining her brand of techno pop, the style has become fashionable with the rise of Lady Gaga and Dr. Luke. Yet, on Body Talk, Robyn’s compositions rarely call attention to themselves as forward-thinking pop the way they did on Robyn. The music here is built simply to service Robyn’s songwriting, and her songwriting is what elevates the album to classic status. Concentrating less on her persona opens up Robyn to deep empathy. On “Dancing On My Own,” she watches from the corner of a dank, divey club as her ex-lover dances with his new girl, while on “Call Your Girlfriend,” she sings from the point-of-view of The Other Woman, encouraging the guy to let his girlfriend down easy. Even “Hang With Me,” which could have easily fit in with Robyn’s braggadocio, comes from a place of care for her lover, though she keeps him at a (suitably badass) distance: “Just don’t fall recklessly, heedlessly in love with me/ Cause it’s gonna be/ All heartbreak/ Blissfully painful insanity if we agree/ You can hang with me.” Those moments round out our shit-talking, label-founding, Tetris-ripping pop goddess with intense vulnerability. If that’s not the Super Foxiest, then I don’t know what.
-Marty Brown, 2010