Monday, February 25, 2008

In Praise of Robyn

I know I’m a few years behind the times with this piece, but one of the joys of blogging is that you can openly admit when you’ve been a little slow to latch on to something hyped or hip. I enjoyed Robyn’s album when it finally emerged in the UK last year as a clever pop record, but somehow neglected it when it came to compiling my albums of the year list. This was a huge mistake – a nakedly commercial pop record it may be, but it just might be the best pure pop album of the whole decade. It has certainly set a standard that the likes of Kylie, Girls Aloud, even Britney, will surely struggle to match. ‘Robyn’ is proof that just because something is market driven, infectious and broadly accessible does not mean it has to be vacuous or dispensable.

Bloggers everywhere have been sent into mind-blowing ecstasies over Britney’s ‘Blackout’. It’s an extraordinary record from an extraordinary person – an unforgiving and candid document of a young woman’s descent into psychological meltdown and an accompanying obsession with anonymous sex. It’s unpleasant and voyeuristic to admit it – but this makes for compelling listening. What ‘Blackout’ lacks though, is the genuine broad emotional depth of this album from Robyn, the entrepreneurial and self-motivating ambition behind it, and the intelligence, wit and insight of her lyrics. Whilst there’s something ironically conventional and predictable about Britney’s public torment, there’s something palpably unconventional and exciting about Robyn. She looks and sounds unusual, free-spirited and confident within herself, but all this cleverly conceals the inherent vulnerability of this album’s greatest songs.

The unapologetic, brash and refreshingly hilarious intro sequence might be poking fun at the self-aggrandising tendencies of pop stars, or it might be entirely serious. Either way, it’s completely masterful. Introducing Robyn as the ‘undefeated, undisputed featherweight champion on all five continents’, the sequence then audaciously claims that she split the atom, discovered a cure for AIDS and, perhaps most worryingly, even ‘outsuperfreaked Rick James’! Apparently she also has the world’s highest Tetris score. Clearly, she’s not a woman to be messed with.

The crisp electro of ‘Konichiwa Bitches’ continues the theme, playfully emphasising Robyn’s frustrations with the music industry and independent determination to succeed on her own terms. Rather brilliantly, it also features a quite superb boast about her breasts: ‘One left, one right, that’s how I organise ‘em/You know I fill my cups, no need to supersize em’. Somehow, it’s all far more interesting than, say, R Kelly tediously bragging about his sexual prowess. The following two or three tracks continue in this style, mixing defiant individuality with enticing production values. How refreshing it is to hear a female pop star delivering the style of lyrics more usually associated with the male dominated world of hip hop.

Having said this, the album’s success chiefly rests on its more sensitive moments. ‘Be Mine!’ and ‘With Every Heartbeat’, both successful singles, provide the emotional core of the set. The former is one of the strongest pop songs of recent years – a devastating and overwhelming lyric of unrequited affection set to a party beat and a deceptively jaunty melody. The impact is staggering – it’s an outrageously enjoyable and infectious listen that only reveals its underlying pain on closer inspection. ‘With Every Heartbeat’ makes virtues of repetition and relentlessness, creating a touching atmosphere through its cumulative impact.

There’s also the album’s sole ballad, a delicate flower of a song called ‘Eclipse’. A lesser artist would have used this as an opportunity to demonstrate technical prowess, range or virtuosity. Whether Robyn has any of these qualities is rather unimportant given the convincing nature of her vulnerability here. This is the most conventional song here – in essence a somewhat corny piano ballad – but she turns into something believable and touching.

‘Robyn’ is everything a pop record should be – unconventional, entertaining and inspiring, whilst simultaneously playful and lightweight. The production, some of which comes from Swedish electro legends The Knife, is as biting and intelligent as the lyrics. Resistance is futile.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

I haven't heard any Robyn Dan, but I have to take issue with your attack on Kells. I agree that much of contemporary swing beat is tedious lyrically (Kanye West is surely culpable here), but Kelly is the exception, not the rule.

What's tedious about "I'm all up in your middle / Ooh, it tastes like Skittles" or "Like Jurassic Park / Except I'm your Sexosaurus babe / You and me hopping, like two kangaroos / Rattling and Moaning, out here in these woods"?

Beat that.