The last time we heard from Robyn, it was 2008. The diminutive Swede was riding high after top ten hits with bittersweet, orchestral-pop hit Be Mine and anthemic dance ballad With Every Heartbeat. The latter song went to number 1 in the UK, shortly after the album Robyn was nominated for a Grammy. Not only did these feats provide a brilliant backdrop to the Platinum selling album from which they sprang, but the success of Robyn was the high point of a comeback which saw the one-time teen popstar reinventing her career on her own terms.
Three years later, and the singer is set to release a triple album in three instalments. Body Talk Pt 1 picks up where Robyn left off, with the emphasis on those sweeping, emotional dance tracks and the biting, quirky rap-pop with which she made her name. The album’s title reflects the singer’s love of dance culture, having spent three years promoting her last album in clubs across the world. It also reflects her personal intrigue with the disconnect between what your body does and what your mind wants. So, opening track Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do sees her sardonically running through a check-list of guilt-inducing vices- “My drinking is killing me, my smoking is killing me” against a propulsive, glitchy backbeat. It’s half manifesto of what the singer represents and half slacker rant. “It’s like everyone wants you to be perfect and you’re dreaming of a world where you can do what you want. I guess it´s about the modern world and the stress I think most people in it feel sometimes. It´s a pretentious message so I tried to make it as simple as I could. I´m talking about how I felt when I came off my tour, she explains. Similarly, the rowdily cute Fembot sees Robyn projected as a cartoon character, one who raps that “Fembots have feelings too”, and who suffers the blight of the hormonal desires which conflict with what her brain is telling her to do.
Dancing On My Own is the one which will bring a lump to your throat, and the natural successor to With Every Heartbeat. Against an industrial techno beat, Robyn depicts a scene familiar to many: the man she loves is dancing with another woman, oblivious to her presence as she looks on. It is, as Robyn puts it, a song inspired by her love of inherently sad, gay disco anthems such as Ultravox’s Dancing With Tears in My Eyes, Sylvester and Donna Summer. Again, it plays on the title Body Talk, because “it’s the contrast between dancing, which is such a happy form of expression, and feeling heartbroken. I think those songs get to people because heartbreak is such a lonely feeling but you can share that sadness so easily with the right song.”
Robyn also hooked up with Diplo for the track Dancehall Queen, her semi-satirical homage to European mid-90s chart rave and rap acts such as Dr Alban, Technotronic, Leila K and Neneh Cherry. “Sweden had these great pop groups who brought African heritage to Europe and combined their influences with Techno. It turned out Diplo and I were both fans of this period of music, one which a lot of people think is quite cheesy. So when he said he wanted to make an Ace of Base song I burst out laughing, but I loved the idea.”
For a short album, Body Talk PT 1 has many dimensions. Later on, we hear the singer offer a spooky, childlike rendition of the traditional Swedish folk song Jag Vet En Delig Rosa, which translates as I Know of a Lovely Rose and was made famous by jazz singer Monica Zetterlund. Robyn even recorded it on the original microphone which Zetterlund used to record her signatory version in the hope of channelling the right atmosphere. And then she switches tracks again; Hang With Me (Acoustic) and Cry When You Get Older offer a wise note to any younger listeners, albeit in the vein of an older sister who’ll share her alcopop with you while she’s mopping up your tears.
If it seems strange that a popstar would release three-albums in today’s current climate, where music lovers are even less inclined to download a whole album than they are to pay for music, you have to consider Robyn’s credentials as something of a pop trailblazer. This is the woman who was signed to a major label aged 15, had her first album out at 16 and had toured America before she was 20. While other teenagers were learning about who they were alongside their peers, Robyn’s formative years were spent surrounded by what she describes as a “commercial machine”, music industry execs who wanted to turn her into the next Christina Aguilera. She released an album called My Truth (“I was so pretentious back then, just look at that title!”), which no one outside of Sweden got hold of. She was working hard, but completely aware that something just wasn’t right. And so she severed her ties with the major labels and started her own label, Konichiwa.
She met Klas Åhlund, of Swedish punk group Teddybears, and the pair began working on songs for her eponymous album. “You think that you will disappear if a record company doesn’t like you. After compromising so much, I was really questioning everything, then I gave it one last shot, I worked with Klas and we made Robyn.” With the benefit of many years of working within the music industry, she was able to do things on her own terms for the first time. “More than anything, I wanted to have fun! What’s the point if you’re not enjoying it?”
Body Talk PT 1 sees her joining forces with Åhlund once again, which is one reason why the album, though only eight songs long, takes you from techno to dancehall to acoustic ballads and nostalgic Swedish folk songs in one seamless journey, and still sounds undeniably like a Robyn record. Each song on Body Talk PT 1 represents the many sides to this unique, thoughtful, uncompromising artist. It is the woman who has absolutely no trouble telling the wrong guy to back off, and the woman who, on a Body Talk Pt 2, will rap with Snoop (“he wore his slippers the whole time we were recording”) and demand the next Pope be a black woman.
At a time when the charts seem to be dominated by female solo artists, Robyn represents one of the few who is actually prepared to be an individual and let the songs do the talking. There’re no elaborate costumes, no carefully constructed image, no industry machine; instead of cultivating a pop aesthetic which will guarantee commercial returns, Robyn has spent most of the last ten years doing everything she can to find a way to be herself.
If she can go from weepy dance ballads to Fembots and Dancehall Queens on the first album, imagine what she has up her sleeve for part two?