Robyn Roundtable: Billboard Staffers Weigh In On 'Honey' Highlights & How It Lived Up to Expectations

Mark Peckmezian
Robyn

The wait is finally over -- Robyn's first studio album in eight years, Honey, is at last out today (Oct. 26).

And while the follow-up to the Swedish pop star's influential Body Talk LP is only nine songs long, there's a lot to unpack: Instead of the sparkling dancefloor anthems that defined her last LP, she's pursued softer and often weirder tracks that, instead of rushing toward cathartic choruses, dig deep for hypnotic, slow-burning rhythms and showcase influences ranging from minimalist '90s techno to Prince-esque funk.

It's the latest evolution of a pop star who, for more than 20 years now, has zagged whenever her peers have zigged -- and been all the more celebrated for it. Here, Billboard digital features editor Nolan Feeney; senior editor Andrew Unterberger; and deputy editors, digital Katie Atkinson and Joe Lynch convene to discuss Honey's highlights, how it lived up to expectations and what it says about Robyn's future.


Nolan: It’s here, it’s finally here! Robyn’s first album in eight years, Honey, is out now. I think a lot of us have been anxiously awaiting this record and dreaming of its contents for some time. So, I have to ask: How does it live up to the immense expectations we’ve placed on it?

Joe: I don’t think Honey could ever live up to the expectations eight years of waiting will create. And from the sound of it, she doesn’t want it to — there’s zero effort to replicate the success of a pristine pop formula like “Dancing On My Own” or “Call Your Girlfriend.” I do think it’s lovely — maybe a little too much of the modulated low-register voice in the background (does it need to be on so many songs?), but the synths are so delicate and atmospheric they belong in Twin Peaks. And the disco influence is very slight, but welcome. 

Andrew: Yeah, my first listen to Honey made me question what I really wanted or expected from a new Robyn album in the first place. I guess if there was one thing I had missed in the interim years, more than Big Single Robyn even, it was Pop Superhero Robyn — the invincible, wisecracking protagonist of “None of Dem” and “Konichiwa Bitches” and such. Pretty clear from the second track that this wasn’t going to be that kind of album either, and ultimately I think that’s fine — her insisting “I’m a human being,” which sorta feels like the thesis for the whole album, is stunning and powerful in its own way from the one-time Fembot. It’s not what I expected, but that’s always been Robyn’s deal, so I acclimated pretty quickly. 

Katie: I wanted my first listen to be a completely uninterrupted run through all nine songs, and I'm so glad I did it that way, because by the halfway point (“Send to Robin Immediately”), I was fully immersed in the Honey world and convinced that 2018 Robyn could do no wrong. Every time I picked up on an obvious reference (the disco of “Because It’s the Music,” the Crystal Waters of “Between the Lines”), it all made perfect sense in the context of the album and still felt like Robyn. That’s not to say that it sounds exactly like anything she’s done before, but it makes sense in her evolution.

Nolan: I’m curious if this album will inspire people to revisit or reevaluate the stopgap projects she released between Body Talk and Honey. There was that collaborative EP with Röyksopp in 2014 and her “mini-album” with the La Bagatelle Magique side project in 2015. In recent years, I felt like some fans dismissed those as experimental indulgences: “Yeah, yeah, get all the weirdness out of your system so you can get back to what you really do!” But this album is just as weird, if not more so. The song structures are often unconventional. Is this what she “really” does? Were Robyn’s immaculate verse-chorus-verse-chorus pop songs just a brief moment in time for her?

Andrew: I think it’s pretty clear at this point that it’s on us for ever assuming that Body Talk was definitive Robyn — a testament to the album’s size and stature, but also an unfair assignation for an artist clearly never meant to be defined by any one work or era. Going back over her catalog recently, I was taken aback not only by how great and coherent and full those “stopgap” EPs were, but how the self-titled album — now just sorta seen as The Album Before Body Talk — holds up as a classic in its own right, and even how many ahead-of-their-time gems there are on her first three, Robyn 1.0 sort of albums. 

I think because Body Talk's impact was so powerful, widespread and long-lasting, we overestimate how much that period means to Robyn’s core artistry. This is someone who’s been producing vital and ever-evolving pop music for over 20 years now; there’s no true center to either stray from or return to. 

Joe: I don’t know if it feels all that experimental to me — definitely a weirder album than Body Talk, but I feel like it’s more low-key pop with a few oddball flourishes than an actual piece of experimental pop, like one of her 10-minute odysseys on those EPs. Just like I, inevitably, do wish there were at least one out-of-the-gate pop banger (I need a new running song, Robyn), I also wish there was one long avant-pop song. Something that, as it plays, you have no idea where it’s going to go next. I feel like most of these tracks find a groove or mood and stick to it, which isn’t a bad thing, but given how mellow they are, it can leave for a bit of a low-impact listening experience.

Nolan: You bring up something really important, which is the role of repetition on the album. In interviews leading up to the record, Robyn talked about finding inspiration in club music that wasn't built around a big chorus or any kind of release, really — music, as she explained, “that had no reward...no conclusion.” I worried that I would find the approach inaccessible or unsatisfying, but that’s not been my experience listening to this album. I could listen to a loop of the “Human Being” beat forever. “Honey” could go on for five more minutes and I wouldn’t be mad. I just want to wrap myself in these beats as if they were blankets and live in them.

Joe: Totally agree about “Honey” and “Human Being,” but the repetition on “Beach 2k20” — which sort of sounds like an ambient exotica song — wears thin for me. The album closer “Ever Again” feels like an outlier — more like a ballad from The Cars than a house-indebted groover.

Andrew: Same on “Beach 2k20” — more like “Beach 2k20/20 Experience,” amirite — but I love, love, love her closing the album with “Ever Again.” It’s the pure pop injection we’ve been waiting for, and it’s even morphs into its own Jacques Lu Cont remix halfway through. It’s almost a wink to her fans, a confirmation that in case you thought Human Robyn couldn’t still hang on the dancefloor, she can still Travolta with the best of ‘em. 

Katie: I’m here to defend “Beach 2k20”! It totally reads ’90s rave-pop to me — like an unreleased Deee-Lite album interlude, which is about the highest compliment I can give a song. It made sense to me tucked in between the deep-house keyboard riff of “Between the Lines” and the retro synth of “Ever Again.”

Nolan: There’s a tenderness and intimacy on “Ever Again” that reminds me a lot of her self-titled album, particularly tracks like “Should Have Known” and “Anytime You Like.” I realize I’ve missed the side of Robyn’s music that makes me feel as if I’m eavesdropping on someone’s conversation. Are there sides of Robyn you all are discovering or re-appreciating? Did anyone else see any throughlines from Honey to her past work?

Katie: Of all the new songs, “Missing U” would fit best on Robyn or Body Talk — which is why it was kind of a misleading lead single for Honey. But matters of the “heart” are still front and center beyond the intro track, just like they are on her last two decades of work, from bemoaning that her “heart can’t stop beating” on “Human Being” to the skipping-heartbeat rhythm on “Between the Lines” (“it makes my heart jump”), all the way through her proclamation on the album closer that she’s “never gonna be brokenhearted ever again.” While it might be nice for Robyn if she’s never brokenhearted again, it would be devastating for fans of her unlucky-in-love classics if she never sang about it.

Nolan: “Missing U” is an interesting one, because it’s sort of the most obvious throwback to the previous era, but it also has the Honey fingerprints all over it, with the way it shape-shifts and dissolves. It’s the first song Robyn wrote for the album — she’s said that the tracklist goes in the chronological order in which she created the songs — and in that way it feels like a connecting bridge. But in other ways it feels like it’s caught in between for me. As much as I enjoy it, lately I almost want it to either be a tight, focused three-minute classic or an 8-minute jam that winds and twists and builds — the kind of extremes Joe mentioned earlier.

Andrew: The more wounded, in-her-feelings Robyn of this album definitely does flash back to the Robyn-era singles like “Dream On” and “With Every Heartbeat” — the Robyn who would wallow in her synths, who hadn’t quite learned how to weaponize them yet. That was the Robyn that a lot of us first fell in love with in the blog-pop days of the mid-’00s — well, fell in love with for the second time, if you count the late-’90s, proto-TRL Robyn of “Show Me Love” and “Do You Know (What It Takes)” — so it’s cool to see her return, for sure. 

Also, while I’m not wild about the second half of “Beach2k20,” I am definitely intrigued by the emergence of Travel Guide Robyn. I’d love to hear her and Todd Terje team up for some kind of “Lanzarote” sequel.

Nolan: Speaking of a Robyn wish list — where does Robyn go from here, both in terms of the music and how she releases it? Until an early version of “Honey” premiered on Girls, I had practically given up on the idea that we would ever see a full-length Robyn album again. But not in a despairing way — I just figured she’d continue to release songs a la the Röyksopp and La Bagatelle Magique projects: Smaller, (hopefully) more frequent batches of songs that have different obsessions and focuses. Honey is a “proper” album, but with only nine songs, its length felt like a confirmation of this less-is-more approach. What do you all think the future holds for Robyn? (Robyn, if you’re reading this, no rush!)

Andrew: This is a good question, and the real answer is: whatever she wants. That’s a cop out, though, so I’ll predict that her next project will be of a multi-media sort of variety — either a film score, a visual mini-album or something else innovative and totally unforeseeable, in a kind of 21st-century Björk mold. If not that, maybe a return to some very specific retro dance-pop sound or vibe, like a three-song acid house EP or an electroclash throwback teamup with Peaches or something. (Too bad Cher already beat her to the ABBA covers album.) 

My personal wish? A next-gen collab album, co-starring Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen, Azealia Banks, Troye Sivan, Cashmere Cat, Betty Who, CupcakKe and countless other disciples. Supernatural meets Pop 2! Twitter would never recover. 

Nolan: I’m already having heart palpitations.

Katie: How am I supposed to answer this question when Andrew gave the definitive response?

Nolan: If we want to be realistic, she’s talked about hitting the studio with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and even shouted them out at her Red Bull Music Festival talk this past spring.

Joe: Yes! I remember that. She said she had material with them, but the ball was (and remains) in their court.

Katie: Borrowing Nolan’s “connecting bridge” analogy, if “Missing U” picks up where her previous album left off, that would mean we should be looking to last track “Ever Again” for clues about where the next era will pick up. Just like “Human Being” seems to be Robyn’s declaration that she’s leaving her robot alter ego behind, “Ever Again” seems to point to Robyn leaving heartbreak behind. Can we even imagine what a Robyn album that doesn’t address lost love would sound like?

Joe: I feel it’s more likely that the next Robyn project we’ll see will be something akin to the EPs released over the last 8 years — stuff that gives her a chance to collaborate and take risks in new territory, as opposed to delivering that “complete album” album. But that is one potential knock you could levy against Honey — it’s very reflective by nature, and so it’s hard to imagine this sound getting pushed forward. I feel like she’ll almost have to start over for the next album. Which is fine! If the last 20 years have proven anything, it’s that she’s not afraid of detours and reinventions. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 8 years for a nine-track album.

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