For the last decade, everyone in the music world has been talking about how listeners pay for records, how they listen to music, and how artists can make a living. But artists like Robyn are raising an even more interesting question: Why do we continue to tie music to physical media when it’s all online now? The length of an “album” was originally determined by how much space the format offered, how narrow the space between the vinyl grooves could physically be.
This continued with CDs, their production relying on how much surface area could be digitally encoded. (Think back to burning mix CDs, maneuvering songs like puzzle pieces to maximize the number of tunes you could fit under the time limit.) But if we’re all using the internet to make, buy, and listen to music, why would the length of a composition be dictated by the physical constraints of production from past generations? Robyn seems to have asked herself that very question, and it’s just another reason she’s an essential pop voice.
For the second summer in a row, Robyn is digitally releasing something that has come to be deemed a “mini-album”: not quite what we’ve come to know as album-length, but not an EP either. And she’s not the only one opting for the mini; Mac DeMarco’s Another One bears that heading, and Chance the Rapper and Lil B’s brief mixtape could just as easily fit that as well. While its true that there were physically produced, vinyl mini-LPs decades ago, and other artists have taken to releasing pieces of variable lengths, there’s something potentially game-changing about a pop star making that choice. All too frequently artists of her stature are criticized for surrounding five or so great tracks with unnecessary fluff. It’s as if painters had for decades only had access to canvas one foot wide by one foot tall; once those painters had access to a six-foot-wide canvas, would we assess it any differently from another painting? Once 3D printers were developed, did we reject the sculpture-dom of the pieces produced in this method? The mini-album, in theory, is just the beginning — future pop stars might drop a few songs whenever they happen to have them, or a band could save up 30 hours of music and deliver it all at once.
It’s not without thought that the first comments about her new project, a collaboration with duo La Bagatelle Magique, relate to Robyn’s schedule and strategy rather than the music within the five songs of Love Is Free — nothing on the mini-album is half as exciting. Instead, Robyn, her keyboardist Markus Jägerstedt, and the late producer Christian Falk dig into retro dance floor techniques to produce some solid, if unexceptional club tracks. Robyn’s presence at the forefront lifts the compositions some; her conscious push for freedom, both lyrically and in format, enlivens otherwise blurry nostalgia.
“You don’t like what you can’t control,” she chimes over a comfortable, grooving beat on opener “Lose Control”, the rhythm and Robyn encouraging you to let loose in equal measure. The rest of the set continues this focus on freedom, control, and independence. A cover of the Loose Joints standout “Tell You Today” uses every trick in the disco book: funky bass, lasers, swank horns, and charming whistling. The beguiling “Got to Work It Out” builds a familiar groove, and the bombastic “Set Me Free” should fill dance floors. “You know you’ve got to set me free,” she cries. A distorted vocal take repeats “free your body” afterward, implying this is all about the way the music should empower you to overcome any insecurities — but Robyn is setting herself free from the limitations of the predictabilities of the music industry as well.
Replacing Robyn with male vocals to start “Love is Free” shows just how essential Robyn’s personality is to making this sound work. The bland “boom-chicka-boom” opening thankfully gives way to percussive come-ons from the Swedish star. That said, not even Robyn can sell a line like “I’m going to give it to you baby/ Give it like a mother/ Safe like a rubber.” Though the instrumental tracks aren’t the most interesting, it was the right decision to have them stand as scaffolding for Robyn to traverse, even if she can’t deliver a gem on every single line. Working on her own schedule, under her own parameters, Robyn sounds confident in her freedom, an exciting proposition that should continue to whatever project she has in mind next.
Essential Tracks: “Lose Control”, “Got to Work It Out”