"We Were Very Self-Indulgent!" How Robyn Re-Shaped Modern Pop With 'Body Talk'
Ten years on from the release of Swedish pop star Robyn's seminal album 'Body Talk', Clash talks to her producer Klas Ahlund about the record’s legacy...
In the summer of 2009, when Robyn returned to the studio to work on the album that would become 'Body Talk', she didn’t do so with the intention of remaking pop music in her image. The aim was simply to write something, anything, again.
Her 2005 self-titled, the first album to be released on her own record label, marked a rebirth which turned her from a mid-level major label pop star into the genre’s critical darling. However, the two-year promotional campaign for that record, which grew through word-of-mouth acclaim, was also draining - such that Robyn entered 2009 wondering when she would be able to work again.
The resulting record, which turned 10 on Sunday, proved those fears wrong. 'Body Talk' was the product of an ecstatic burst of creativity which went on to provide a road map for pop stars that followed her in the 2010s.
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Robyn had already seen the future of pop music before the rest of the industry, understanding that downloads and streaming meant the old single-album model of releasing music was no longer necessary. She reunited with producer/writer Klas Ahlund, who worked on the majority of Robyn, with the intention of writing without constraints or adherence to release schedules. When 'Body Talk' was finally released in 2010, it came in the form of three records released over the course of the year and collected together into a final 15-track compilation.
Ahlund admits that the strategy was not necessarily the most sensible way to work. “I think starting out there wasn’t much of a plan and it was just more a sort of exuberant inspiration,” he tells Clash now, reflecting on the album’s creation. “It’s often the case that you have more music that you want to release and if you have a gatekeeper - like a label or a record company - they’re going to be like ‘we can’t treat this amount of content, we need to spread it out’. We didn’t have that restraint.”
Robyn and Ahlund worked on songs with an experimental spirit, finding sounds which intrigued them on analogue synths and building melodies around them. The process produced shimmering dance-pop tracks like ‘Dancing On My Own’ and ‘Hang With Me’, which distilled Robyn’s appeal to its core elements, but it also led to odd stylistic digressions.
On the final album, a rap duet with Snoop Dogg (‘U Should Know Better’) is followed by a charmingly Euro-tinged take on dancehall (‘Dancehall Queen’), while the first mini-album ends with a recording of a traditional Swedish folk song (‘Jag vet en dejlig Rosa’).
Ahlund says such moments came from “a reluctance or refusal to edit” during the writing process. “Someone else would say ‘this is not very coherent - you need to be more clear about who you are stylistically’ while this case was like ‘we could do whatever we like’ because this is our own label and no-one gets to tell us what to do.”
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Ahlund adds that at the time, he had taken to watching documentaries on the makings of classic albums, such as Pink Floyd’s 'Dark Side of the Moon' or The Beatles’ 'White Album'. “[The documentaries] would be like ‘we worked on this song for three whole weeks in the studio’ or ‘we just did backing vocals for four days’ and nothing they would throw at me sounded weird compared to what we were doing,” he says. “We were very self-indulgent and almost like progressive rock of the early 70s minded.” It is in this sense that 'Body Talk' may be the definitive work of poptimism, written as it was with the belief that pop music could be as grand and meticulous as the classic rock albums of the past.
It would take time though for the album to cement itself as a classic record of its era. Although 'Body Talk' was well-received in 2010, its standing grew over the following 10 years to the point that Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and NME all named it as one of the best albums of the decade. That shift was in part due to pop music’s improved critical standing at the end of the 2010s but it was also due to how influential the album turned out to be.
For pop artists who did not choose to embrace R&B and hip-hop, Robyn’s brand of vulnerable club-adjacent pop set the blueprint. You can hear 'Body Talk' in glittering synths of Taylor Swift’s '1989', the open-hearted romance of Carly Rae Jepsen’s 'Emotion', and the soaring choruses of Lorde’s ‘Green Light’ and ‘Supercut’. The Guardian’s Laura Snapes noted in 2018: “Entire cottage industries have formed to produce the next great star in her image”. And Max Martin, arguably modern pop’s greatest songwriter, reportedly confessed that he frequently had female artists come to him asking for help on how to make an album like Robyn.
Even 'Body Talk’s three-part release strategy, viewed at the time as an eccentricity, increasingly feels like a standard model for releases going forward. In 2020, Hayley Williams and Moses Sumney both earned acclaim with albums released in separate chunks, while a number of rising artists have taken to releasing six or seven track mini-albums to build their following. Superstars like Swift and Justin Bieber have also got in on the act by breaking up their albums into easy-to-digest playlists post-release.
Ahlund has his own thoughts as well about why the album’s reputation has grown over time. “I think it’s very specific to itself. It didn’t sound like stuff around it at the time so it’s aged with dignity,” he says, adding that this specificity is something he doesn’t always see from other artists. “I think sometimes with Robyn she agrees to go deeper, she’ll be like ‘yeah let’s actually put that in the lyric’ - let’s not just have that be the conversation about what’s going to be in the lyrics. Let’s actually write that.”
Pop’s biggest stars in 2010, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, traded in fantasy and artifice, teenage dreams and commentary on our perverse fascination with icons. Ten years on, it is Robyn’s music, rooted in intensely personal experiences, that feels timeless.
The acclaim around 'Body Talk' was helped too by the near-silence which followed its release. Although there were suggestions that Robyn would go on to regularly release new music in the following years, it wasn’t until 2018 that she returned with a new album. That record, Honey, pushed even deeper into the emotional intensity which has defined her music, with sparser arrangements and an unusually brooding atmosphere.
Looking back now, Ahlund thinks that the idea that the album’s pace of work could continue was a fantasy, describing it as sounding like “the rants of a raving madman high on life”.
“That’s how you talk before you set yourself up for a mental breakdown,” he says, adding later: “You can have those spurts, explosions [of creativity], but then you need to refill or you’re going to die.”
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Words: Conrad Duncan / @theconradduncan
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