We know by now that Robyn has been around long enough to inspire a line of stars from Britney Spears to Carly Rae Jepsen. It’s also arguable, perhaps evident, that during this time she’s remained ahead of the curve of pop music enough to be called a trendsetter. It helps that she’s surrounded herself with trusted collaborators and producers that have helped create the template for modern synth-driven pop, but more essential to her staying power and originality has been the range and intensity of emotion at the core of her music. This has never been clearer than with Honey, her latest album released in 2018 following an 8-year hiatus brought about by the passing of a close friend and producer. Its tracklist reflects the chronology of not only the order in which they were written, but her journey through this time, touching on the sadness, ending on an uplifting note, and mixing the two to reach the shades between. Her music has often been laced with this bittersweet poignancy, but onHoney it is more contemplative, mirrored by production that is still her signature synthpop, just (forgive the pun) sweeter and, as always, primed for a night dancing.
Given her veteran status in the pop industry and story behind the new album, I was impatient to see how it would translate to her set. The crowd already occupying half the GA pit when first opener Kindness started his DJ set made it clear I wasn’t the only one. Playing into this, he started with a brief introductory pre-recorded track containing the familiar voice of Robyn welcoming the early attendees. Fragments of her music dotted the rest of a set that played it safe with doses of current house-tinged tunes (Dua Lipa’s “One Kiss,” Azealia Banks’ “Anna Wintour”) and pop classics from the past couple decades, proving once again the universal appeal of Beyonce.
After a half hour, Kindness ducked out to let Channel Tres take over. The artist enhanced “Controller” and “Glide,” the first singles that hyped up an excellent self-titled EP released last summer, with moves synced up to two backup dancers. He introduced the unreleased song “DSB,” smirking as he explained its title as meaning “Dark-Skinned Beauty…otherwise known as me.” As someone let out a whoop, he glowingly approved, telling the stranger “whoever that was…I fuck with you,” before rewarding them with “Jet Black.” He continued to work his charm, greeting all with a “bonjour” and admitting the only other French he knew was “ménage à trois.” Channel Tres’ Compton roots probably contribute to the ease with which he combines easygoing speech-rap with grooves reminiscent of classic Detroit house, but it also may have influenced the matter-of-fact tone in which he dedicated newest single “Brilliant Nigga” to someone he knew in jail. “Topdown” closed a set which was brief yet showed enough promise to easily imagine him soon garnering the same recognition as labelmate Yaeji, who similarly uses the prosody of rap/speech to bolster primarily electronic tracks.
Even as Kindness left the stage following a second set as unoriginal yet crowd-pleasing as the first, his presence lingered into the first song of Robyn’s set in the form of his co-writing contribution on Honey for “Send to Robyn Immediately.” The song’s extended buildup was reworked to maximum effect, beginning with atmospheric low-end rumble as the five members of Robyn’s band entered. Melodic synth bass and washes of cymbal unfurled like the gauzy curtain which tumbled to partially conceal the musician’s platform behind its cropped length. Like the smoke being pumped in, Robyn’s vocals crept across the stage from somewhere just adjacent. Almost immediately, the kick drum dropped in accompanied by the sound of the audience already singing along. Robyn’s voice remained disembodied until the last few bars when she finally emerged to collect whoops of delayed gratification. Standing still and stoic behind the curtain, she let fans struggle to make out her metallic silver dress with contrasting pink nipples and matching boots while the band played the song out behind her. A sleigh bell embellishment masked the beat as it snuck into
Though now fully visible, the Scandinavian songstress remained still until shifting blue lights brought in “Indestructible.” She relaxed her stance to bob into the first verse, still holding on to her mic stand, pausing only to reach up to clap in coordination with drum hits. With the swell of the first chorus, she let go to outstretch her arms to the crowd before throwing them up and side to side. She wrested from its stand with such gusto that it fell over, though Robyn was now too preoccupied dancing in full swing to notice. The audience cheered her on as she broke it down to the synth-fugue bridge, and again as the icy arpeggios of the fan-favorite from Body Talk changed into another, “Hang With Me.” A cowbell and Latin-tinged rhythm signaled “Beach 2K20,” and a man emerged with a cellphone, likely to broadcast the venue’s energy to social media, but doubling as a reenactment of the text message-
Robyn exited the stage, and the curtain dropped away to fully reveal the marshmallow-pillow drapery framing the screen that had been projecting a magnified Robyn since the start of the
“Between the Lines” kicked off the club-ready part of the set, with the dancer shuffle-step freestyling behind Robyn before they took turns either strutting or crawling back and forth across the stage in lockstep, switching up their movements each time to hollers of approval each time. The BPM spiked for a mashup of “Love Is Free” and a remixed “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do,” the minimal vocal duties on both tracks letting Robyn and dancer
Robyn returned bearing a bouquet of roses which she stashed before delivering a few back-catalog selections including a rendition of “Stars 4-Ever” that turned into a call-and-response overwhelming amount of response. She stepped out again, this time trailed by her band, in preparation for the encore, which started with a somber mood set by glowing blue lighting and her dancer’s slow deliberate movements. The roses were dispersed to outstretched arms in the audience, and Robyn addressed them for the first and last time of the night. Montreal was thanked for its glowing reception and the final song was introduced, ending the set on a circular note with a cover of Kindness’ “Who Do You Love,” on which she features. As members of the band gradually left and the song tapered off, the crowd followed suit, though many lingered, perhaps hoping Robyn would make one last reappearance or simply trying to squeeze every last drop of pop pleasure from the experience.
The only track from Honey not included in the hour-and-a-half performance was “Baby Forgive Me,” though no one can fault them after managing to integrate the entire rest album with older cuts in a set that paid attention to overlap in lyrics and production to achieve a flawless flow. It’s also possible Robyn knew she’d have no need to ask for forgiveness after a show that more than lived up to all expectations.
Review – Dylan Lai
Photos – Arianne Bergeron