When it comes to the pop music narratives we’ll remember 2018 by, the most enduring will probably be a fictional one: “A Star is Born,” the weepy Oscar front-runner that, for all its many charms, has a fairly dim opinion of pop. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, the film seems to say, with its assumed-to-be familiar story of Lady Gaga’s Ally, a young artist who leaves the authentic songwriting and heartfelt work of her early days behind for costumes, dance routines and soulless hits. It’s supposed to be the story we’re all supposed to know to be true about pop music, how it’s the genre that makes you famous, but perhaps not the same kind of fulfilled.
And then there’s Robyn’s “Honey,” the best pop album of 2018, which proves that there’s so many wonders of the genre that the movie doesn’t care to tell. Pop is supposed to be a genre that belongs to brightest young things; Robyn is 39 and has been in the game for decades – first famous in her home country, Sweden, then crossing the pond to become a beloved critical favorite in the USA. And now she’s making the some of the best music of her career.
Pop stars are expected to be operating in a churn machine of releasing new hits; Robyn took eight years to make “Honey,” following up her beloved 2010 album “Body Talk” by stepping away from music for nearly a decade. Far from soulless pop bangers, some of the Swedish singer’s most enduring hits – particularly her breakthrough hit “Dancing On My Own” – are queer dance-floor anthems. Her wrenching one-woman dance sequence in her music video “Call Your Girlfriend” is the perfect antidote to the kind of stilted, overly rehearsed routines Lady Gaga’s character attempts in the movie.
And beyond that, “Honey” doesn’t sound like the album of a pop star interested in stuffing her release with the maximum-possible number of hits. “Honey” is the slowest album of Robyn’s career, its nine laser-focused tracks taking their cues from club music rather than radio pop. They’re characterized by stripped-down grooves that leisurely unfold over the course of the songs – sometimes building into an evocative climax, sometimes leaving the listener waiting for a big moment that Robyn chooses to never materialize.
“Honey” may be a danceable album, but its overwhelming emotion is angst, from the glittering sadness of its lead single, “Missing U,” to the chorus of “Because It’s In The Music” that sums up the album’s mission statement, “Because it’s in the music / Yeah, we were dancing to it / I’m right back in that moment / And it makes me want to cry.” And considering how lean “Honey” is, with not a single production flourish out of place, its unrestrained moments are that much more impactful, like when its brilliant closing track “Ever Again” explodes into a euphoria of synths in the album’s final moments.
That’s also why some listeners, who may be expecting the track list of “Honey” to be as earworm-stacked as some of her previous albums, might be disappointed by the more leisurely pace and the less-populous hooks. But when you remember that Robyn – like our “Star is Born” protagonist Ally – got her start as a heavily manufactured young pop star, it’s clear that “Honey” is the kind of album she has strived her whole life to be able to release, an honest manifestation of her artistry that’s uniquely and purely hers.
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