When Robyn describes the eight-year hiatus she took from her solo career, she says that she spent the time “rebooting.”
“I really feel like I rearranged my insides in a way,” she told The New York Times. Her hard drive was wiped clean to make way for an entirely new program. Honey is our introduction to the new software. What we meet is an album about resolve, about sticking your tongue out to taste the sweetness and closing your eyes with satisfaction because you know not to ask for too much more. The momentary bliss is enough.
On the astonishing title track (the existence of which had been rumored for years), Robyn opens in an ascending voice, “Baby you’re not gonna get what you need / But baby I have what you want / come get your honey.” A version of the song was previewed on an episode of HBO’s “Girls” in 2017, but was far from complete. Robyn reportedly spent four years trying to finish it, and it became, she says, her white whale. The result sounds accordingly deserved. “Honey” glimmers like liquid metal on the dance floor; it pulses and churns with a wistful determination, the sort of contradiction that Robyn is so skillful at capturing. Pop tastemaker Jack Antonoff, in praising her song “Dancing On My Own,” describes Robyn’s ability to capture apparently disparate feelings succinctly, like they’re sides of the same coin — “this idea… where the sadness is sewed into the glory,” he wrote.
“Honey” is the sequel to “Dancing On My Own.” In the latter, Robyn watches an ex-lover from the corner, begs him to see her and ultimately dances with sorrow alone. It’s a crystalline encapsulation of bittersweet. When she wonders, “I’m right over here / Why can’t you see me?” she’s asking a question, but it sounds like a demand; with that demand is the implicit belief that a better world might exist — that she might deserve the right to escape her loneliness. As she twirls around on the dance floor and looks up at the ceiling, she knows what she needs and thinks maybe she can get it. On “Honey,” Robyn learns that the fact of necessity has nothing to do with its fulfillment.
That’s a profoundly sad realization, and it’s easy to underestimate the minimal, early-morning-hours-in-the-club production of these songs. Robyn says she’s no longer an optimist, not like she once was. “Things don’t always go well, that’s just how it is,” she told Pitchfork. What replaces optimism is an acceptance of love as a viscous fluid, something that slips through the fingers and falls onto the floor with ease, glittering up at you from the ground. You can still enjoy it, but it’s fleeting.
Robyn is the pop star of ambivalence, and the sadness comes with its counter. “Missing U,” a song about loss, sounds like a triumph with its carnival synthesizers. “Because It’s in the Music” is a track to happy-cry to. The counter melody makes it sound as if it’s moving in two different directions, mirroring the back and forth of the lyrics when she sings, “It’s a tired old record / I still play it anyway / Because it’s in the music.” On “Ever Again,” she describes the push and pull of a new relationship while declaring that she’s never going to be broken-hearted again. It closes out with the most joyous production of the entire album.
And it’s a triumph, too, when you consider her newfound realization in context. After eight years of battling pain and loss at the fault of love, she doesn’t say that she’ll never love again — she says she’ll never “hurt” again. She’s still taking licks of the sugary stuff while she can. She’s just dropped the expectations she once had. Gone are the questions of “why” that dogged her on the Body Talk series and her eponymous album. This time around, Robyn knows.
Also gone is most of what could pass as mainstream pop. Opener “Missing U” and the title track are as close as she gets to pure pop, and even these sound anachronistic — not necessarily of the past or the future, but of some ethereal medium which draws from both. There’s ’80s house music, ’90s R&B and the futuristic synths of “Send to Robin Immediately.” What brings it all together is the obsession with entrancement. To achieve it, Robyn avoids simple choruses and the predictable drops of EDM. The beats wander unexpectedly. You have to wait and see where they take you, and the moments of transcendence are almost always a surprise. In “Send to Robin Immediately,” a discernable beat pattern doesn’t emerge until more than halfway through the song. The tropical “Beach2k20” is in no hurry, strolling along for six minutes, with pauses for swim breaks. Honey rewards patience.
Perhaps, though, the greatest achievement of this album is that it exists at all, and still sounds so essentially Robyn. No one else could have made this album, and despite her reboot, despite the trauma, despite the eight-year hiatus, with her newfound realizations, new software and an added calm, the absolute joy is that Robyn is — after everything — still dancing on her own.