If the personal is political, then music that turns inward can depict the outside world in microcosm, as pop songwriters and electronic soundscapers know well. Whether through loudness or quietude, canny songwriting or raw sonic overload, the four albums reviewed below comment on the value of interiority.
Robyn: Honey (Konichiwa/Interscope)
In 2010, the Swedish dancepop singer released three EPs in quick succession that, when compiled onto the full-length Body Talk, represented a career peak: for an hour, just like a well-constructed club mix, the anthemic hooks and bouncy disco beats surge forth with an experienced dancer’s confidence. While she’s worked on a few collaborative projects since, Honey is Robyn’s first album in eight years, and her slightest ever.
The difference between Body Talk and Honey is the difference between pop music in 2010 and 2018: in tone, tempo, volume, general mood. Although superficially similar, the choruses are talkier and more minimal, the drum machines have slowed to a static pulse, the keyboards swirl around in blurrier patterns, and the focus has generally softened. The hooks lie in the repetition of the basslines, the breathy yearning of Robyn’s voice, the studied rhythmic awkwardness meant to contrast with the electronic polish. The beats are simply not propulsive.
The past decade has seen a rise in singer-songwriter albums that in theory sound like electronic pop music while turning inward toward a sparer, more contemplative formalism, as incarnated by Lorde and Carly Rae Jepsen. Honey shares this tendency while also participating in an older tradition of using disco’s reflective surface to reveal the bedroom rather than the dancefloor, to hide or magnify emotion.
On the closing “Ever Again,” the plucked bass and climactically buzzing synthesizer establish a deadpan that mirrors her nervous resolution to “never be brokenhearted ever again”; she takes refuge in banality because it won’t hurt her. The title track “Honey” keeps stopping and starting, as the beat decides to throb, abruptly drop out, shyly creep back in; Robyn mixes a large number of nature metaphors (honey, waves, currents, sunset) to create a sense of vulnerability buried deep beneath external layers: a primal, enveloping intimacy. These are the most notable, fully developed songs. Others (“Beach 2k20”, “Send to Robin Immediately”) resemble abstract keyboard sketches, with spoken crosstalk in place of melody.
Although this album glows warmly, she’s torn between songcraft and atmosphere. She aims for compromise rather than synthesis, and sounds doubly tentative.
Gazelle Twin: Pastoral (Anti-Ghost Moon Ray)
Throughout her career as an avant-electronic producer, Gazelle Twin has fashioned musical depictions of dystopia: capitalism, the surveillance state, bodily failure. Here, she goes further, mixing her electro-industrial cacophony with elements of classical and English folk music on a jarring, aurally immersive, post-Brexit protest album.
The most immediately apparent sonic ingredients are the harshest ones: pounding metallic drums, random electronic shrieks, piercingly high bleeps dragged down a chalkboard, blasts of bass turned up way too loud, surprisingly hummable if dissonant synthesizer hooks, Gazelle Twin’s own voice filtered through a mechanical groan — a musical forest of whirling knives and churning gears. Closer attention reveals harpsichords, flutes (both natural and pitch-shifted into screechy loops), quotes from Blake, folk songs, and choral singing (the album cover imitates the Deutsche Grammophon label).
Where once Kraftwerk combined electronic sound with 19th-century classical ideas about melody to imagine a benevolent technological utopia, Gazelle Twin aims to disorient; the juxtaposition of English high culture and ugly noisy chaos is intended to insult the British upper class. When she sings, those lyrics that are decipherable through the snarling distortion approach straightforward social critique — the sad descriptions of poverty in “Dieu et Mon Droit,” the parody of conservative nostalgia in “Better in My Day,” the equation of monarchy with “pus” in “Throne.”
If performed over acoustic guitar and sung clearly, such moralizing would be intolerable; chopped into musical shards, these songs evoke a culture in pieces. When she samples a puppeteer singing “Over the Hills and Far Away,” the reference isn’t just for ironic context: surrounded by squelchy keyboards, the beauty of the traditional melody is preserved, and the resultant longing — for the past associated with the song, for a better world in the future — is almost too sad to bear. It’s pastoral after all!
This album is full of sharp, shrill, bloody noises to listen to, and the noises terrify. Fueled by political mourning, she mixes ugly splatter and deep feeling.
Rosalia: El Mal Querer (Sony)
Originally a traditional flamenco singer, Rosalia has become known for experimenting with tradition, mixing flamenco with modern pop styles and adjusting its inner workings. On her second album, a fusion of flamenco and modern pop-R&B, she tells a story, adapting the anonymous 13th-century novel Flamenca to dramatize the death of a relationship.
Recent electronic R&B has relied on a steep contrast between the skeletal spaciousness of the music and the singer’s wild, expressive swoops to fill that space, but the effect is more extreme with Rosalia. As a classically trained singer prone to excessive vibrato, she doesn’t hesitate to flaunt her considerable vocal technique, but she also applies electronic layers to her voice — sometimes sighed, sometimes bleepy, sometimes contorting her exclamations into a staccato stutter.
Producer El Guincho, who has previously specialized in dense junkyard collages, here contributes a calmer, more exacting sound, as sparse electrobeats, syncopated handclaps, rapid guitar plucking, and weird overlaid samples — background cheers, revving motorcycles — provide a mechanical pop functionalism while also creating the illusion of an interactive live setting. The effect is that of a ferocious natural force, Rosalia’s voice, modulated through extreme technological control.
Melodically, these songs accentuate flamenco’s Arabic influence; rhythmically, they hop and soar despite their delicate complexity. On “Reniego,” her grand melismatic wails resound over unaccompanied strings, while on “Pienso En Tu Mira” she blends into the percussive flow. The lyrical narrative has the stark authority of ancient folklore, but could also be modern R&B confessional: she undergoes many convolutions of pain before finally emerging free.
This album combines the satisfactions of pop formalism with the joy of letting loose vocally. Through exactitude, she accentuates a fiery, immediate, almost antiquated mode of romantic expression.
Low: Double Negative (Sub Pop)
Having gradually gotten slower and more dreamlike since they started making music in the ‘90s, this long-running Minnesota indie-minimalist band attempts to fashion a socially conscious response to the current political situation through the filter of their fragmented, ambient guitar noise. Softly jagged, quietly harsh, they sound sad and incoherent.
Like Slowdive, who recorded an eponymous album last year, Low’s name describes them in ways they may not have intended: unless you turn the album up loud or listen on headphones to hear the tremendously distorted details, the album approaches inaudibility. Their scratchy guitar tones, blanky breathy singing, and underlying drones don’t aim for a monolithic sound, as in shoegaze, but rather the flickering of electricity, sustained inconsistently, partially dropping out for extended intervals before zapping back on at high voltage.
These songs were still composed for a guitar band, but they sound removed, interrupted, with sections cut out and replaced by hisses or jitters or simply silence; the rupture of the guitar-band form is supposed to represent a rupture in the societal fabric. Wary of literalism, they don’t write explicit protest songs, but they do connect the fragility of the music with larger anxieties, a general unease (“Everybody says that the war is over/but it isn’t something you forget so easy”; “Before it falls into total disarray/you’ll have to learn to live a different way”).
For the strategy to work, though, they’d need more vestigial structure than they provide; the instrumental passages, in particular, can sound like nothing more than pattering fuzz. The marvelous exception is “Always Trying to Work It Out,” on which Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker entwine their voices in haunting counterpoint before the amplifier shatters in slow motion.
To accuse this album of quietly evaporating would be unfair — it succeeds in quietly, mournfully constructing a space you can hide in for a while. Whether this is a healing or a stultifying space depends on your tolerance for static.