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Robyn's 'Missing U' Is Classic Robyn With a Defiant Twist
The Swedish star returns with a big, sad call to the dancefloor -- but don't expect 'Body Talk 2.0'
Across many songs about technology, human connection, and robots, Robyn has long been fixated on the future. (Heck, she even inspire an actual robot.) And back in 2010, she appeared to have captured its very essence on her seventh LP, Body Talk.
This was true of both its rollout and its content. Tired of the traditional cycle of recording, promoting, and touring, she released the album in three installments before compiling the best tracks on a final full-length — a prescient move, as artists now experiment more widely with release models in the streaming age. The songs themselves, emotional stories about outsiders and misfits set to bubbly synthesizers and sparkling four-on-the-floor beats, also embodied the “dance and cry” platonic ideal of a pop song that artists such Lorde, Jack Antonoff, Sam Smith, and others would go on to cite as a major inspiration. Tours with Coldplay, Katy Perry and Madonna followed, and from there Robyn seemed poised for another shot at global domination following her initial '90s breakthrough and mid-2000s electro-pop reinvention.
And then she went quiet -- at least when it came to delivering the conventional follow-up everyone expected. She actually remained quite active and even toured. In addition to a handful of features, she put out two collaborative mini-albums: 2014's Do It Again, which saw her team up with Norwegian duo Röyksopp for spacey tracks that sometimes approached the 10-minute mark; and 2015's Love Is Free, which she released with the side-project La Bagatelle Magique (featuring keyboardist Markus Jägerstedt and the late Christian Falk.) The latter more closely resembled her solo output, but it also featured unconventional song structures and often steered clear of proper hooks.
Stopgap releases aren’t out of the ordinary, but these moves -- along with a string of festival dates in 2016 that featured hard-to-recognize remix versions of her biggest songs and, as a result, confounded many casual fans — seemed like not just detours but actual avoidance of what many die-hards wanted the most: more of where Body Talk came from. In interviews over the years, Robyn made it clear she didn’t want to have a Madonna-sized career or turn herself into a brand to achieve success; if putting out an obvious, conventional pop single risked putting her on that path, she seemed to suggest, she wasn’t interested in sustaining the momentum.
That perception of resistance perhaps adds to the excitement around "Missing U," the shimmering first taste of her upcoming eighth LP, which will also be her first solo album in eight years. During the song’s social-media rollout, Robyn hinted that the song is partially about her relationship with her fans, and an acknowledgement of her relative absence. Looking at the fairly straightforward lyrics -- "Finding clues in my pockets and opening boxes/ And going places we went, remember to forget/ Thinking how we could've been" -- that feels more like marketing spin than a sincere interpretation. Yet it's ultimately a fitting description considering the track is the closest Robyn has come to continuing the sound and spirit Body Talk in the near-decade since its release. You wanted a big, sad call to the dancefloor? Well, you finally got it.
The track reunites her with longtime collaborator Klas Åhlund, who co-wrote and produced almost the entirety of Body Talk as well as her 2005 self-titled album. (He was largely absent from her most recent projects.) But Robyn devotees likely could have figured that out without needing to look at the credits (which also list Metronomy's Joseph Mount as a co-writer/producer). "Missing U" has the hallmarks of their best work -- a twinkling synth loop like the kind you’d find on “Hang With Me,” a pulsing beat perfect for, say, strutting through an empty warehouse. And while lyrics about heartbreak are of course standard in pop, they remain one of Robyn's specialties: Here, she reckons with the ghosts of a breakup with the same sense of loneliness and longing she captured on previous modern classics like "Be Mine!" and “Dancing on My Own.”
But the Robyn here is not exactly the same Robyn from Body Talk -- her side projects and experimental impulses have clearly left a mark on her new music. The structure of the song, which clocks in at almost five minutes, feels looser: Instead of bursting into a final chorus from the bridge, the track instead and floats and dissolves with an outro that takes the elements of the hook and stretches and pulls them apart like Play-Doh. It's almost appropriate that a song about empty spaces, missing pieces, and a general lack of closure avoids any kind of grand climax; even the chorus seems to asymptotically approach liftoff before swerving away with a sighed "'Cause I'm missing you..." Tension isn't a byproduct of the song -- it's a central feature.
There’s also a spare, demo-like quality to the track, lacking the throbbing, speaker-blowing oomph that even her more experimental projects possessed. Perhaps that’s because, as she revealed in a Red Bull Music Festival talk this past May, she started work on the album in her home studio, deciding on a sonic palette for the record herself before bringing in her outside collaborators. She also seems to have adopted a less-is-more policy when it comes to making music, telling the audience, “With this album I’ve gone back to realize that the softer I get, the more colorful and the more dynamic a song gets. For me, it meant just shutting down for a while and being really sparse with my impressions or being very sensitive to what I needed.”
None of this is bad by any means -- just different from what many listeners are used to. But it may also be a reminder to adjust expectations for this new era. Even as she delivers a song that ostensibly fulfills fans' burning wishes, there's enough evidence in "Missing U" to suggest that 2018 may not be the year we get Body Talk 2.0; in fact, we probably never will. That was a once-in-a-career, planets-aligning, imperial-phase kind of album. And if we know anything about Robyn, it's that she's too busy figuring out what's next to spend time looking back.