Robyn: “Body Talk”

The full picture now before us, the sheer breadth and clarity of Robyn’s vision becomes self-evident: With her Body Talk series, now rounded out to a nice, complete trilogy, the Swedish teenybopper turned indie icon reveals that, to her, pop music is a limitless playground, and she’s the one writing the rules. Her mastery of her chosen idiom– clubwise pop music, the dancefloor clearly in focus but not necessary to enjoy either the craft or the depth of feeling involved– is, in 2010, on roughly the same level as the total dominance of the rap game shown, perhaps, Big Boi, or maybe Kanye– which is to say, she isn’t just running this stuff but outpacing it, having proved long ago, and reasserting now, that she can play inside the lines of the genre when it suits her but she doesn’t especially need it.

Speaking of Kanye, his G.O.O.D. Friday series of Internet leaks basically takes a page out of Robyn’s playbook; beginning much earlier in the year and extending almost until its end, the Body Talk series doesn’t innovate the album format so much as the way albums are assembled and released. The idea was always to release three records in the span of about half a year, and the first two Body Talk discs were a pair of mini-albums, eight songs apiece, that suggested the true virtue of Robyn’s ambitious 2010 plans were the sheer generosity of it. The third one– not titled Body Talk pt. 3 but simply the Body Talk LP– flips the script. Its makeup is comprised of five songs apiece from the two EPs, rounded out by five all-new recordings. And as it turns out, the real story of this whole endeavor isn’t the sheer abundance but the way it’s all come together, for the LP is no greatest-hits sampler of the previous year’s work, but an album assembled with specificity of vision and attention to craft, making it not just a primer on the Body Talk material but a carefully-worded statement: This is what Robyn is saying in 2010, and if it isn’t exactly succinct, it is finely focused.

What’s here, and what isn’t here, is important, as is the running order, because it shows just how much forethought went into these releases. To that end, I should say that I somewhat miss the scrappiness of the EPs, which were just a little more ragged than this longplayer and, despite their comparative brevity, also a bit more varied; that’s mostly because Robyn has chosen to excise the acoustic cuts that peppered those first two albums, keeping this one solely within the realm of steely dance-pop and synthesized sheen. Keeping an acoustic song or two would have broken things up a bit here, as, if there’s any complaint to be had, it’s that the fifteen songs here might sometimes dip just slightly into monotony, particularly in the middle. But it’s a minor quibble: Robyn does break things up with the inclusion of a pair of oddball, talky house numbers (first EP standout “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” appears in the second slot here, building the tension before “Dancing on My Own” delivers the cathartic release, and “We Dance to the Beat” is well-placed later on as a sort of momentum-shifter into the third act)– and of course, in this context, her delightfully brash, sassy, gangsta-copping Snoop Dog duet “U Should Know Better” is even more of a left-field delight.

What’s important, it seems to me, is that she’s honing in on a particular side of her music and her persona– one in which, perhaps, those acoustic songs just don’t quite fit– and she’s exhibiting both her mastery of it and the depth of what it all means. The effect of the album’s sequencing is impressive, grouping songs together in a way that weaves a loose narrative out of Robyn’s familiar themes of empowerment and fragility, independence and loneliness, strength and heartbreak. Could she possibly have begun the album with a more fitting thesis than “Fembots,” her terrific single about a dancefloor warrior whose steely veneer masks a human heart? She follows it with a couple of well-rounded rejoinders: “Don’t Fucking Tell Me…” is a litany of modern anxieties that turns, at the end, into a statement of level-headed defiance, and “Dancing on My Own” maintains a stoic strength in the face of internal angst.

Things are fleshed out from there, and I use that term deliberately, as the album’s biggest take-away is that its auteur is very much a human being; these are songs about how she is prone to falling in love, vulnerable to being burned by love, capable of experiencing wrenching heartache, and able to remain resilient. “Love Kills” gives away its theme in its title, and one of the new songs, “Time Machine,” turns out to be a stellar addition to the Body Talk narrative, almost confessional in its assessment of regret and its admission of the singer’s own hand in turning a relationship sour. For my money, the best thing here is actually “Indestructible,” which is practically an anthem in its determination to forge ahead, even knowing that love kills, cynicism be damned. These songs in the middle stretch seem to throw Robyn for a loop, emotionally speaking, but she finds her footing with a series of boastful battle songs later on, including the Snoop collaboration, “We Dance to the Beat,” and the first-EP highlight “Dancehall Queen,” obviously an earned and irrefutable title for Robyn to claim.

The whole thing works, though, not just as a capital-A Album but as a fairly staggering collection of stand-alone tracks; put this on shuffle with the EP material that didn’t make the final cut and you’ve got a playlist of killer singles, all released in a very short span of time, that I’m not sure anyone, even Kanye, could quite match. On this level, I’ll say only that I can’t really argue with any of the selections made here– yes, I like the acoustic tracks, but find it hard to disagree with the choices of material here as basically the best stuff from the series, and the new songs are all worthy additions, especially “Time Machine,” a killer pop tune produced by teenybopper architect Max Martin, who did  some early Brittney Spears songs as well as some teenaged Robyn stuff, making his presence here a nice full-circle gesture. But this record brings the singer full-circle in a good many ways, paying off the initial Body Talk promise in spades and standing as a fantastic and generous pop masterwork that could, one can quite easily imagine, be an enormous hit in some alternate, more just universe.

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  1. Ssv’s Favorite Albums of 2010 « The Hurst Review - December 27, 2010

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