Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review: Robyn *Body Talk Pt. 2*

"It is really very simple, just a single pulse repeated at a regular interval," declares the fembot at the start of "Include Me Out," the second of seven galvanic dance tracks (and one acoustic ballad) on Body Talk Pt. 2. It is, of course, a general definition of beat, the backbone of all music, and the hallmark of the dance genre. As the title Body Talk implies, Robyn's purpose here is sub-genre bending, the study and exploration of dance music itself.

When Robyn Carlsson announced she would release three short albums in 2010, it was unclear how the individual units would relate to one another. Would Body Talk be a singular album, broken into thirds? Or, was Robyn releasing three disparate albums under a titular umbrella, each to be enjoyed on their own? Now that I've heard two of the three records, it appears the answer lies somewhere in between, though closer to the latter than the former. Both recall each other, while sharing and refracting off of a very large genre. Yet they follow a self-contained trajectory of beginning, middle, and end that best lends to individual consumption. If we're to think of the Body Talk series as siblings, Pt. 1 would be the precocious overachiever of the family, Pt. 2 the weirder, more cerebral middle child.

On average, Body Talk Pt. 2 is as good as its predecessor, though I was admittedly underwhelmed by it at first. It's a darker record, at times insular, icy, and (yes) even funny. Whereas Pt. 1, at its best, was infused with the warmth and exuberance of dance pop, defying you not to love it from the first listen, Pt. 2 hews closer to house and hip hop, opening up and paying off with each listen. To wit, the slinky minimalism of "We Dance to the Beat," a companion track to "Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do." On the latter track, Robyn griped mantra-like about her personal failings ("My drinking is killing me. My smoking is killing me."). On the former she turns her attention outward, and over a Daft Punk bass line dances to the beat of "distorted knowledge passed on," "raw talent wasted," "an eviction next door," "bad kissers clicking teeth." Its lyrical repetition becomes hypnotic.

"We Dance to the Beat" is the first of three oddball tracks that form the heart of Body Talk Pt. 2, and set it apart from anything else Robyn has released. The other two, "Criminal Intent" and "U Should Know Better," are influenced by hip hop, particularly by the music of Missy Elliott. "Criminal Intent" finds Robyn legally accused of "conspiracy to engage in lewd and indecent acts and events." She unapologetically equates the terpsichorean with the sexual, as electronic sirens wail, beats thud heavily, and hands clap along approvingly. "U Should Know Better" is Robyn's most pugnacious track since "Konichiwa Bitches." With the help of Snoop Dogg (who appears to be everywhere nowadays), she trots the globe, letting the people of Earth know better than to fuck with her.

What makes Robyn such a remarkable artist (a pop artist, no less) is the seriousness and depth she brings to this often disposable genre. Yes, these are largely love songs. But more often than not, Robyn's vision of love, and of the world at large, is bleak. On the space disco of "In My Eyes," which opens the album, Robyn sings to her "little star" of deliverance from the artifice of everyday life via the authenticity of personal connection and, of course, through dancing. The song, with its ambient synths and hammering beats, is a sequel to her self-titled album's "Robotboy." But, where "Robotboy" was a call for self-correction, "In My Eyes" casts Robyn herself as the agent of salvation: "When you feel like it's all pretend, then you look into my eyes." Similarly, on the muscular "Include Me Out," Robyn begs her man to enter her heart, as his world falls apart around him.

Like its predecessor, Body Talk Pt. 2 is anchored by an incredible single and an even-better song that follows. On Pt 1, they are "Dancing On My Own" and "Cry When You Get Older," respectively. On Pt. 2, the incredible single "Hang With Me," which first appeared on the last album as an acoustic track, is followed by the even-better "Love Kills." "Hang With Me," seemingly a paean to platonic relationships, reveals itself to be about the inevitability of giving into "heartbreak, blissful and painful and insanity." A lament on Pt. 1, on Pt. 2 it becomes a celebration of falling in love in spite of the pitfalls that are sure to follow. "Love Kills" is her most pessimistic track yet. ("If you're looking for love, get a heart made of steel, cause you know that love kills.") Love hurts when you do it right? On "Love Kills" it is at best a bad case of Stockholm syndrome, at worst deadly, but for the most part, it's miserable. Yet "Love Kills" is propulsive and triumphant; Robyn's music ultimately undercuts her message.

The album's best track is its lone ballad, the devastatingly beautiful "Indestructible (Acoustic Version)." It further proves that Robyn is at her best as a balladeer (see the gorgeous "Eclipse" on Robyn). A string chamber ensemble is her sole musical accompaniment, their lovely arpeggios and galloping ostinato rhythms not too subtly recalling Karl Jenkins' famous De Beers piece "Palladio" (a diamond is forever, but it's also indestructible). Robyn finally gives herself over to romantic love, with full knowledge that she's previously "let the bad ones in and the good ones go." Her solution is to turn a song of experience into a song of innocence: "I'm going backwards through time at the speed of light. I'm going to love you like I've never been hurt before. I'm going to love you like I'm indestructible." With a heart made of steel, she dives in.

If "Hang With Me" is any indication, a dance version of "Indestructible" will be the lead single off of Body Talk Pt. 3, due later this year. This means the youngest sibling in the Body Talk cycle portends to be the wide-eyed optimist of the three. Only, by virtue of being the obvious expectation, it's also unlikely to be true. If Robyn has showed us anything thus far, expectations exist only to be defied.