Robyn Knows When to Give and When to Withhold

The Swedish singer’s Honey tour lets fans take on the big hits while she settles deep into the groove.

Robyn performs at the Hollywood Palladium on February 22, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Michael Tullberg / Getty for Robyn

Last week, footage went viral of a joyful scene on a New York City subway platform: a throng of travelers jumping up and down, pumping fists, recording themselves on their phones, and singing Robyn songs. They’d just gotten out of the Swedish singer’s Madison Square Garden show, and they clearly hadn’t gotten enough of her sweet-sad dance-pop choruses. As videos of the spontaneous sing-along circulated around the internet, they were met with many squees, but also a few sneers. To a certain segment of listener, Robyn—often hyped as a pop outsider—enables real-life Glee sequences. Your mileage may vary on whether that makes her cool.

But she is cool, almost in a literal sense. The fervor that a song like “Call Your Girlfriend” engenders must be intoxicating for its creator, and Robyn would be forgiven for trying to chase that crowd-thrilling glory for the rest of her career. Watching her at Boston’s House of Blues on Monday night, though, it was clear that what makes Robyn vital—in this moment, and previously—is how she amps up pleasure by withholding. She took eight years after 2010’s Body Talk, whose emotionally dynamic synth-pop sent her toward hipster-nation ubiquity, to release a follow-up, Honey. The album was a hushed and idiosyncratic deconstruction of club music, better suited to yoga and microdosing than to drunk partying. Her concerts now begin in full Honey mode and stay that way for a while before getting to the cathartic anthems of playlist legend.

The latest single, “Send to Robin Immediately,” is a thing of beauty, but it’s also more of a hypnotic interlude than a pop song. She opened the show with it. As her band—two percussionists and three keyboardists, who pitched in on other instruments as necessary—worked up a frosty groove without Robyn onstage, the guy in front of me closed the dating app on his phone, looked up, and started loudly clapping on beat with his hands above his head. It was a valiant attempt at engagement, but eventually he seemed to realize that the vibe of the set was not a hoedown. Robyn showed up, and she then stood stock straight at the center of the stage for two full songs. The music was moving around her.

The visual aesthetic spoke to her values of late: sensuality, delicacy, coyness, and subtle change. Draped in translucent fabrics and pillowy trash-bag structures, the stage—depending on the lighting for the song—evoked a cavern, or a silhouetted mountain, or swirling flames, or a storm. A sculpture in the shape of intertwined, M. C. Escher–esque hands stood near the center, and its meaning offered something to ponder in the show’s more trancelike troughs. During the opening number, a veil dropped down across the front the stage, to Robyn’s shoulder height, and she sang from behind it, teasingly.

As the set wore on, the tracks mostly segued seamlessly, the beat ebbing between songs but only rarely disappearing. This was a DJ set as much as it was a concert, and as DJ sets do, it progressed like water being brought to a boil in a pot on a stove. When loosened from her frozen pose, Robyn launched into a dance of punches and crouches. Amid a breakdown on “Be Mine!” she casually reached up with one hand and pulled down the veil at the front of the stage: Voilà, and finally! Within a few songs, she was sparring with the energetic voguer Theo Canham-Spence, and the aerobic high point arrived with “Love Is Free,” a somewhat slept-on collaboration with La Bagatelle Magique. Robyn volleyed slogans with the guest vocalist Maluca, and then the two of them and Canham-Spence back-bent and shimmied as if each were individually moved by the same strong winds.

Her most gooey sing-alongs emerged in the second half of the show, providing a reliable sort of pleasure that, for better and for worse, interrupted the witchy spell of the first half. When she got to “Dancing on My Own,” one of the singles that showed up at the train-platform mass karaoke, she cut the music and let the audience sing the words. This is a Pop Star 101 move, but Robyn took it to an extreme, letting the crowd take over—and scream her praises—for far longer than the length of one chorus. I became intimately acquainted with the pitch calibration of each person smashed up against me, and though any moment of group singing about inconsolable loneliness carries with it a feeling of magic, it was somewhat a relief when Robyn took back control.

For the encores, she was back into confounder mode. The spoken-word mission statement of Honey’s “Human Being” was rendered especially spooky as the stage roiled in blues and blacks. Robyn served up a call-and-response refrain for “Stars 4-Ever,” but it was a rhythmically tricky one—involving a few beats of pausing between Robyn’s cue and the audience’s answer—that took a couple of rounds for the room to master. After the show, on the sidewalk, a circle of women belted out “Show Me Love,” the 1995 teen-pop confection that began Robyn’s career. She’d declined to play it that night, likely understanding that her fans are happy to sing it on their own.