Robyn’s 2006 self-titled career-reboot album is sort of a landmark for clever, indie-leaning pop. Robyn was an album that struck a decent balance between mainstream pop and coy, bratty tendencies that lent themselves perfectly to those who might otherwise listen to, well, Arcade Fire or something. It’s a shame that the album’s mangled release resulted in three very different tracklistings and the eventual self-imposed exile of Robyn herself, only to announce her return with another career reboot, this one with (allegedly) her entirely in control as she releases the first of her three (yes, three) upcoming 2010 albums. Titled Body Talk, as Robyn’s music still finds equal time for danceable beats and melodies as well as smart, wordy lyrics, though this time the ‘smart’ quotient is dialed up exponentially to dramatically great effect.
The choice to release three different albums seems an obvious attempt to stir pre-determined ‘controversy,‘ grab attention, all those good things. It’s the kind of brash, foolish decision brilliant artists tend to make when they finally ‘free’ themselves of their supposed slave-drivers; see Prince’s 3CD disaster Emancipation for a similar example. It might be forgivable, but consider that Body Talk Pt. 1 is only eight songs and 30 minutes long: the purpose of stretching it across three different releases ultimately seems like some sort of selfish cash-grab. Then again, in the fast-paced environment we find ourselves in, it’s probably smarter in the long-run to have three smaller releases throughout the year, so maybe it’s just wise marketing. Either way, it feels oddly disingenuous, especially when the quality of the output is watered-down in favour of the commodity as it is on Body Talk Pt. 1.
In terms of the actual music, this is unquestionably the best thing that Robyn has put her name to; even though it starts off shakily with the ill-advised electro grind of “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do,” the album blasts off from there into some extraterrestrial atmospheric layer of pure pop confection. “Fembot” beats the Black-Eyed Peas at their own game, cheeky sci-fi lyrics delivered in a jokingly robotic style, but when it shifts to the chorus Robyn’s true genius shines through, her altered voice like a steely stream of ear-tickling harmonies. On “Dancing On My Own” she gets emotional to an unhealthy degree, belting her best out over a modulating beat that rumbles like an overactive boiler room, and on “Cry When You Get Older” she turns sickening Radio Disney schmaltz into affecting pathos. Then there’s “Dancehall Queen,” the only track produced by frequent collaborator Diplo, where a squeaky Robyn goes all bitchy over a silly faux-reggae beat. Oh yeah, that one’s good too.
Unfortunately, from then on the there’s an iffy collaboration with Royksopp that’s too much bubble-under and not enough boil-over, coupled with a gorgeous but trivial acoustic ballad and a short trifle sung in her native Swedish. It’s impossible to call this a great album or one of the best of the year because it doesn’t feel like much of an album to begin with; in her strategy to maximize buzz she’s minimized impact. Granted, at least four of these tracks are among my most-played of the year, but that’s just not enough. When the music is this brilliant, confident, and fully-realized, it’s a shame to dock it for presentation. But sometimes presentation is the most important part, and Robyn obviously knows this; otherwise she wouldn’t bother pointlessly stretching her music out over three discs.