Despite some assembly required, the singer’s 2010 LP remains a pop masterpiece
When Robyn calls herself a “Fembot” she means it; not only are her piston-house beats and relentless one-note synths profoundly stiff, her 2010 pop masterpiece requires some assembly.
Body Talk is a great album, but not a perfect one, because then it would’ve opened with the deathless “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do,” which switches spots with a slightly sped-up version of the classic “Dancing on My Own,” both still sandwiched around yes, the gorgeously harmonized “Fembot,” just as they are on the also-not-perfect Body Talk Pt. 1 EP, which included the classic “Cry When You Get Older” she recklessly left off the proper album. She released two more of these EPs in 2010 before unveiling the full-length, and she made the same mistake with the tensely bouncy “Include Me Out.”
In fact, choose just one “Dancing on My Own” and every track involved in this game can fit onto one 80-minute compact disc (what are those?), including the acoustic takes on the wonderful “Indestructible” and flawless “Hang With Me.” If corporeal art products still exist in 2030, maybe she’ll release a sweet little anniversary edition, and hopefully it includes her lovely cover of Coldplay’s “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” and maybe the Röyksopp collab “Do It Again” and her too-cute Prince jack “Jack U Off” while we’re wishing. Furthermore, this three-EP Megazord marketing strategy destabilizes the power of sequencing. So she’s lucky that virtually every song, save for maybe triumphant climax “Stars 4-Ever” and quality pro forma “Love Kills,” is a peak of the form. Even “Love Kills” has a killer bridge.
You won’t get a better endorsement of songwriting than when it survives plain/efficient arrangements, reshuffled releases, superfluous versions to still more or less shaking out to the best pop album of the last ten years. But anyone who’s familiar with “Dancing on My Own,” “Hang With Me” and the once-in-a-lifetime opus “Call Your Girlfriend” knows they sell themselves. Between the obvious summits we get the addictive “Get Myself Together,” the dubwise “Dancehall Queen,” the observant “We Dance to the Beat,” which doesn’t leave out bad kissers clicking teeth, and another Röyksopp pairing, “None of Dem,” which will probably go down as the most ominous track she’ll ever be part of, and that includes her work with the Knife. We also get Snoop Dogg.
Body Talk (as we’ll call this entire umbrella of releases) functions somewhere between the superstar variety hours of the ‘80s and ‘90s and the more stylishly consistent, minimalist pop works of the proto-Drake era. The onetime teenage star turned poster child of Europop maturity didn’t try her hand at rock or country, though the reggae and rap detours do their bid, but her synthdance grows more distinctive over time, the arpeggios of “Indestructible” and even part of “Hang With Me” hinting at Rostam Batmanglij-style classical fold-ins that give context to their piano and orchestral renditions.
As songs, these are light melodies carried by a friendly voice and significant emotional weight. The choruses are fucking knockouts; you’re unlikely to hear better ones than “Dancing on My Own,” “Hang with Me,” or “Call Your Girlfriend” from the 2010s, full stop. But they come with real verses, and even real things to say about romance. Taken as a triptych, in that order, you get the most powerful breakup song of the era to hit the clubs, the best-ever FWB anthem, which is a definitive dating song from the online era if anything is, and then the latter combines the two: A successful-in-love Robyn taking matters into her own hands. Her paramour still has to dump his, and she advises him how, with warmth, candor and shrewdness befitting of a person who’s been there before (as recently as seven tracks earlier) and knows this poor woman will be just fine. It’s jaw-dropping from virtually every perspective, musically, lyrically, and don’t forget its balletic video. There’s even plenty of beauty left over for the a cappella Erato version with the harmonies and cups.
The elephant that’s always been in the room with the indie-media’s open-arms embrace of Robyn is that they treated pop like shit between the advent of Pitchfork and this era of rock taking an artistic backseat to the R&B renaissance among other things. Foreigners like Annie or Peter Bjorn and John got taken on their own terms by critics while Kesha and Skrillex didn’t. Various canons snuck Paramore and Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga in there retroactively to some degree while not exactly fixing the damage they did to, say, Liz Phair’s glamour-shots era.
How did Robyn help bridge this gap? Well, like Fiona Apple in quarantine or Run the Jewels in the wake of police protests, her celestial high-watermark also gets a slight boost from timing: The walls around pop in some critic circles were crumbling for obvious reasons, and Robyn’s also just so damn nice and unpretentious that she functioned as a wrecking ball for preconceptions; the same thing happened to a far milder extent with Carly Rae Jepsen’s cult item E•MO•TION five years later. On some level, she predated the identity politics of social media and Adele’s megapopularity, the battle of Relatable pop stars versus Untouchable Queens like Beyoncé. Of course, Beyoncé built her royal empire on relatability; this whole shit is complicated.
The main thing is that Robyn was the anti-diva; you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone sick of being bombarded with her travails. The flipside of this is that Body Talk is so easy to love that it comes across a bit PG-13. There’s no explicit sex, politics, death, no terribly intense subject matter, just that old reliable love and its various pains. Song structures never deviate from verse-chorus-verse professionalism. This tendency becomes fatally airy on Honey, the follow-up that arrived eight years later with a post-rave chillout glow and no knockout choruses. But it’s still friendly.
Maybe Robyn Carlsson never released a “complete” version of Body Talk because she wanted to leave it open-source for fans in a pre-Spotify world to mix and match according to their tastes; I certainly don’t need to hear the stark sore thumb “Jag Vet En Dejlig Rosa” every time I hear the masterful pop anthems. Maybe she knew Body Talk was bigger than the constraints of play order.
After all, SMiLE required some assembly, too.
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