Robyn Miriam Carlsson is clearly making up for lost time. The spunky Swedish electro-pop singer released four albums between 1995 and 2005, two of which were never actually released in the United States, which is especially vexing when you consider she had a fairly ubiquitous American hit with “Do You Know (What It Takes)” in 1997. And yet, after she revealed her artistic reinvention (capital R) on her eponymous fourth album in 2005, Robyn’s activity has been mostly relegated to live performing and the occasional collaboration with electro producers such as Kleerup, Christian Falk or Röyksopp. Not that those tracks weren’t all magnificent, but five years is still a fairly long time to wait for a follow-up, especially when you consider just how much of a buzz Robyn had built up during those five years.
Her remedy? Releasing three albums in one year. You can’t fault the girl for her ambition, especially when she’s clearly hit a creative stride that all but guarantees that each one will be awesome. While fall and winter will determine how good the second and third installment of her Body Talk series are, Body Talk Pt. 1 more than lives up to its predecessor, delivering a diverse and finely crafted set of songs that range from sassy electro slams to heartfelt acoustic balladry. And through each stylistic metamorphosis she takes throughout the album, her voice remains a stunning constant, never overly showy but consistently strong and affecting. Just like her emotionally powerful productions, her voice maintains that delicate balance between joy and heartbreak, making it one of the most complex instruments in her arsenal.
At only eight tracks, Body Talk Pt. 1 initially seems a bit slim, but it covers a lot of ground in its 31 minutes. As on her previous, self-titled effort, Robyn takes on a variety of contrasting roles, jetting between the extremes of hotwired robo-vixen (“Fembot,” “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do”) and dewy-eyed pop princess (“Dancing On My Own,” “Cry When You Get Older”). In her sassy robot persona, Robyn fires off a killer wind-up with “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do,” reading off a litany of complaints (“My drinking’s killing me…my boss is killing me… my boyfriend’s killing me“) before standing up for her mechanized self on the rapid fire pop explosion of “Fembot”: “I’ve got some news for you/ Fembots have feelings too.”
As that song perfectly displays, no matter the aesthetic approach, Robyn’s strength lies in her ability to inject relatable emotion into a dense and badass dance-pop production. “Dancing On My Own” is one of her most sublime fusions of style with feeling, unleashing tear-jerking laments such as “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her” and “I’m giving my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home” over a bassy, Moroder-style disco jam. And on “Cry When You Get Older,” she takes the perspective of a girl who has loved and lost enough times to know better, dispensing the sage advice, “Hey girl in the strobing light, what your mama never told ya/ is love hurts when you do it right/ You can cry when you get older.”
In the album’s second half, Robyn takes on some even bolder artistic directions. She teams up with Spank Rock on the reggae inflected “Dancehall Queen,” the title of which may elicit a chuckle if you remember the Wherehouse ad copy comparing her first album to Abba. She takes a turn for the exotic on “None of Dem,” an atmospheric but nonetheless banging collaboration with Röyksopp that recalls mid-period Depeche Mode more than anything (which I certainly consider a good thing). The most unexpected treats are saved for the end, however, the first being the string-laden, acoustic ballad “Hang With Me.” Yet the album’s closer, “Jag Vet En Deljig Rosa,” comes as the biggest surprise here, a sparse and haunting reading of a traditional Swedish song that, even when sung in Swedish, is likely to wring some tears from those who aren’t native speakers.
On Body Talk, Fembots have feelings, dancefloors break hearts and mundane grievances stack sky high, but it’s best to leave the weeping for the oldsters. It’s an album built on the emotionally cathartic power of a pristine pop song, but not one that adheres to closely to convention. Robyn can be both a cybernetic vixen or a sympathetic everywoman, but as she suggests in the album’s first song, she’ll make her own damn decisions, thank you. And far be it from me to suggest otherwise – this album is proof positive that every decision she makes is the right one.
Video: “Dancing On My Own”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.