The Swedish singer Robyn took to the stage in Virginia on Thursday wearing … well, how to describe it? She kind of looked like the Mortal Kombat character Scorpion headed to a post-apocalyptic meth lab—neon-orange boxing shorts and a hoodie, makeshift plastic-junk boots and shin guards, translucent outerwear resembling a lab coat. Definitely ready for a fight.
As she shimmied and sang, song by song the layers of strange armor fell. By the time she got to her hit “Dancing on My Own,” she'd exposed her arms and, with her back turned, performed a teenager's pantomime of making out with oneself. Meanwhile, the audience—gayer and more sloshed than likely any that had previously descended on the suburban adult-contemporary temple of the Wolf Trap amphitheater—belted the first verse acapella.
There it was, the Robyn routine: spiky punk-chic exterior, with a cult cheering the reveal of a sensual pop soul.
Listeners first met Robyn in the ‘90s via a few Max Martin-assisted, Ace of Base-y hits for teens. Her career stalled; her fame dwindled; she returned in the mid-aughts with a new outsider aura and less record-label firepower. There has never been anyone like her before or since. Her music’s mostly simple and sleek, and it’s clear she could conquer Top 40 again if she wanted to. But she’s more interested in using pop impressionistically, to tell a story about loneliness and love that transcends most radio platitudes about those topics.
And what’s that story? Basically, it’s the on-stage striptease from bulky art-school pugilist to fabulous singalong leader. It’s about reconciling the freaky, antisocial, alienated individual with the primal every-human—opening up and owning up to one’s capacity for sex and dance and hurt. Which explains the queer appeal, right? It also explains all the cold synthetic textures and the warm melty choruses, and it explains why a homewrecker’s apology like “Call Your Girlfriend” sounds so joyful: Some feelings can hurt, but hiding them hurts a lot more.
This year, she’s working with the Norwegian electronic duo Royksopp, resulting in the Do It Again EP and the current tour. Under an heap of twisty song structures and extended electro-sax outros, the collaboration should bury any lingering suspicions that Robyn’s merely a Pitchfork-approved Katy Perry—party-starting nothingness with false cred. The guys have pushed her to a weirder, darker place. Her solo set on Thursday felt chipper and communal and not quite as mesmerizing as her recorded material; once Royksopp rejoined her, though, the lights went down, the bass went up, and we got a reminder that the best concerts create their own reality for a little bit.
My favorite song—of the EP, of Thursday’s show, maybe of the year—is “Sayit,” which might be Robyn's purest mission statement yet. It’s six minutes of insistent techno thump and Dark Side of the Moon synth whirling as Robyn teaches a robot to say something very simple: “I / want / you.” To perform it, she strapped what appeared to be an exercise ball onto her back, under her shirt. It allowed her to lean back at a 45-degree angle, bobbing up and down with her legs splayed as Royksopp worked up an industrial thrum. “I / want / you” blurted a disembodied Speak & Spell; “I want you, too” Robyn replied; electronic thunder crackled. It'd have been terrifying if the occasion wasn't so miraculous: reenacted, the birth of desire itself.
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