Favorite Tracks: “Missing U,” “Human Being (featuring Zhala)”
It’s a bad sign when an album reminds you of one of your worst, most contentious reviews, that being my negative review of Kelela’s TAKE ME APART. When I signed up to review both albums, I expected material along the line of “Rewind” or “Dancing On My Own,” stuff that was very distinctly pop, but dabbled in interesting textures or more sophisticated songwriting. However, I failed to realize that it’s been eight years since Robyn’s last album, and the death of long-time collaborator and friend Christian Falk during that timespan has inspired a pivot to something a lot more solemn and meditative, both lyrically and musically. My dislike of HONEY and TAKE ME APART says a lot more about me than the albums themselves, namely my inability to be hypnotized when the music flickers more than it pulsates, or to read between the lyrical lines to feel subtler emotions when the delivery gives me no reason to.
Robyn’s new-found love of looping, trance-inducing house music is best explored on the opening two songs; anchored in the most interesting melodies, they help guide the listener through more and more musical elements. That bleeping, driving barrage of keys on “Missing U” is nothing short of stunning and supports the well-placed blasts of deep bass, and the more complex, liquid percussion line of “Human Being” opens the door to oily, darker synths and a tense swell underlying the last third of the song. The problem is that few of the songs ever get really atmospheric; interesting tones that play off each other well and have a diversity of rhythms is the best way to achieve atmosphere, but these loops are too homogeneous to have any real impact, and the music comes off as vast yet empty and hollow as a result. It also suffers from weird tempo disconnects, hinting at beat-switches that never happen. “Because It’s In the Music” and “Send to Robin Immediately” have these thumping bass lines and low-pitched synth rumbles that belong in one of Robyn’s club-bangers, not chill, twinkling deep house. It’s not that HONEY’s new musical direction is a bad decision, it’s that it can’t even commit fully to it.
Hypnotic, looping electronica is best supported by lyrics based in rich imagery or abstractness, because they require the right mood and a replay or two to truly absorb them and let their meaning sink in. Robyn typically writes very direct songs, and their impact is stifled when they keep being repeated ad nauseum, surrounded by music that supports more evocative writing. “Missing U” walks the line between delicate imagery and direct statements well, but the bluntness of the euphoria on “Between the Lines” and the mounting irritation of “Send to Robin Immediately” are dulled when surrounded by such languid music. The only song that really tries to get abstract is “Honey,” which tries to be tempting and alluring in its colorful descriptions of sensuality, but instead just comes across as gross and jumbled in its metaphors. Give this to a Sophie or Charli XCX and it might work, but Robyn is not zany enough to make this sound fun or enticing, and it’s jarring how it resembles little else on the rest of the record lyrically.
Since this is meant to be a more emotionally naked album, the general move away from most of the superfluous Auto-Tune and spastic spurts of robotic static is a smart choice. However, there’s still ugly, breathy pitch-shifting underlying the first half of “Baby Forgive Me,” robotic, apathetic vocal snippets throughout “Between the Lines,” and the head-scratching clusterfuck of effects and layers that is “Beack2k20,” which lacks the surreality of Superorganism or the creeping menace of Robyn’s own “We Dance to the Beat.” The larger problem is that she chooses to go with a serene, tranquil delivery, with nothing forceful to fill up the vast space left by the music. Again, this would be fine if the lyrics weren’t so direct and required you to find subtlety in her delivery rather than words themselves. “Send to Robin Immediately” gets the closest to really clicking emotionally, as the layered, interlocking multi-tracking evoke to the pressure she’s trying to impose on this person to make up their mind, but it blows it by just kind of fading out for its last minute. Robyn has certainly had intense, brash performances on songs like “In My Eyes” and “Love Kills,” but her new restraint often causes her presence to shrink when it needs to expand.
All of this culminates in the floudering closer “Ever Again,” an optimistic proclamation that she’s “Never gonna be brokenhearted” ever again. It’s meant to serve as a resolution and counterpoint to the rest of the record’s morosity, but it’s not enough of a departure from the rest of the album to wrap things up well. Her delivery is still faint rather than confident, and the filmy multi-tracking only adds to its whispiness. Lines like “That shit’s out the door” and “That shit got so lame” aren’t at all convincing, and come off even more desperate due to the profanity. The sequencing also gives the song nothing to complement, as it follows “Beach2k20,” the most worthless track here, and the final beat-switch to trite trance synthesizers that just kind of exist on top of the song isn’t satisfying in the least.
It’s not fair to expect Robyn to make the same music after an eight-year break, and much like Kelela’s debut, this album is probably not for me. Yet even with that admission, HONEY is still a languid mess of contradictions that seems long but is actually rather short, tries to be vast yet feels oddly hollow, and features more subdued performance from Robyn over music in desperate need of her force of personality. As dull as a response of “Where are the club songs? Where are the pop hits?” is to these changes, it’s the only appropriate response when the changes don’t lean into atmosphere, experimentation, or abstraction enough to make up for the lack of a “Dancing on My Own” or a “Love Kills.”