Methinks pop stardom begets personality. It’s much easier for a singer to let the market influence her persona, shifting identities until something clicks with the audience, than it is for her to emerge from the studio, fully formed and unwavering in aesthetic. How many incarnations have Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears gone through? How long did it take for Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta to become Lady Gaga? Even Katy Perry had to bounce around in a P.O.D. video or two before she figured out that faux-lesbianism was the way to very real fame.
I think about this when it comes to Robyn, who re-emerged in 2010 after five years of creative stasis with Body Talk Pt. 1 & 2 to become more popular than she’d been since her teen years as a sometimes-on-MTV import, wondering what audience impulses she’s piggybacked onto. Does she, with her catalogue full of loneliest-girl-at-the-party-but-fuck-it-I’m-gonna-be-strong songs, enable nascent college feminists to justify their sometimes-sadness? Does everyone just wish they had her haircut or were Swedish? Or is it just because her songs are well-produced and catchy? I think it’s because all of her emotional reactions seem extremely rational and well-thought out — “Cry When You Get Older,” not “Cry All The Time.” She seems like an older sister, the best friend who knows what to say even when she can’t follow her own advice (on the sadder songs, at least).
On Body Talk, Robyn combines the best songs of Pt. 1 and 2 with a slate of originals that don’t stray too far from the narratives she’s usually working with. A few of the previously heard songs have gotten sonic face lifts: “Fembot” almost doubles in length, tacking on a bridge and bloopy buildup at the end, and “Dancing On My Own” adds more twinkling synths underneath the thick buzzing that drives most of the track. She’s excellent at walking the line between forlorn/focused; her saddest songs seem like warnings and advice columns, her upbeat songs like crotch-loaded dance floor cruise missiles.
There’s nothing particularly distinct about that dichotomy — after all, “I’m A Slave 4 U” and “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” were on the same album — but Robyn is good at pulling it off without coming across like a caricature. At worst, she just seems predictable, like on “Call Your Girlfriend,” which wastes an excellent song title for a paint-by-numbers bummer about how to let someone know you’re cheating on them with a Swedish pop star (though I sense saying “I’m still your friend, I just met someone new” is going to be met with a thrown drink, not a gentle “Oh, I understand”). Fortunately, she splits equal time between advice-giver and sassy floor burner, the latter side represented on “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do” (in which Robyn reads a list of things that are ruining her shit), “U Should Know Better” (in which Snoop Dogg sounds more motivated than he has in years and Robyn names all the people who know better than to fuck with her) and “We Dance To The Beat” (in which Robyn, sounding more like a robot than on the songs about robots, calmly dissects how serious she is when she dances).
As was the case with “Hang With Me,” which shows up here in its less-plaintive-more-pounding incarnation, “Indestructible” gets fleshed out following its appearance in acoustic form on Pt. 2. It’s the closest thing to a defining, affirming single out of the originals on this album, racing along with the characteristic arpeggiating synths and chugging bass lines we’ve come to expect from the songs that Robyn writes with frequent collaborator Klas Ahlund (or, basically, the sound that defines the bulk of her 2010 output). With lines like “I was never smart with love/ I let the bad ones in and the good ones go,” Robyn continues to give the impression of someone who can acknowledge and accept her failings rather than being defensive about her nocturnal activities.
So yes, if you heard Pt. 1 and 2, you know what this album is going to sound like; it’s an excellent consolidation of the moods of both of those albums and as good of a third-album-summation of Robyn’s 2010 as could be expected. In case you needed reminding, Robyn was one of the liveliest figures in music this year, and even though there are a few lapses into the trite side of songwriter’s catharsis (depending on your level of cynicism), Body Talk concludes a triptych of highly enjoyable pop albums. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for the next batch.