No matter how popular they might be, at nine concerts out of ten an artist is going to save their biggest hit for last — not only to build anticipation and give the audience a reason to stick around, but also as a kind of making-it-worth-the-wait master stroke. But Robyn — patron saint of intelligent pop, who created a strain of commercial music cool enough for the Pitchfork generation — would never be that predictable, even on the stage of that apex of pop and popularity, Madison Square Garden: She dropped her signature song, “Dancing on My Own,” smack into the middle of her 100-minute set. Caught off guard when the song’s pulsating bassline kicked in, the damn-near-capacity crowd collectively lost their minds, erupting into squeals and screams and singing and hugs and arm-waving and cellphone frenzy.
As the first verse led up to the chorus, the music dropped out and Robyn — an artist who, even for a traditionally modest Swede, has never seemed comfortable with the self-aggrandizement of being a pop star — let the crowd take over, leading them through the entire chorus without once speaking into the mic. And after 18,000-odd people had finished singing the chorus of her song, Robyn paused, tearing up as she thanked the crowd and soaked it all in, before finishing the song to yet more pandemonium. (Several dozen crowdmembers did an encore on the subway platform below the arena after the show.)
Indeed, the pacing of the set — based around her latest album, “Honey” — was unconventional, structured almost more like a DJ set than a concert. It began slowly, with the musicians, dressed almost entirely in white, slowly filing onto the almost-entirely-white stage as dry ice and giant gauzy curtains billowed and a slow electronic rhythm began. After a few minutes Robyn, clad in a shiny white cocktail dress and silver high-heeled boots, made a low-key entrance from the back of the stage, as she sang a verse from the new album’s “Send to Robin Immediately” [sic]. The music morphed into the title track from “Honey “as she gradually approached the front of the stage, still barely moving — until the beat finally kicked in and she began dancing, capping a slow tension build that erupted as the crowd joined in with her.
And so it went for the next 90 minutes, as this remarkably low-key star navigated a balance between the crowd-pleasing hits that got her onto this stage — primarily from “Honey” and its predecessor, “Body Talk” — and the innovation that makes her music so different. The show was built for dancing, with the songs often seguing or flowing into each other, several hits performed in their less-familiar remix versions, and there were multiple dance interludes during the set where the bass cranked up and the beat leveled off and she was joined by a dancer or two, occasionally breaking into synchronized moves with them.
While trained as a classic pop star (via her 1995 breakthrough hit “Show Me Love”), Robyn has not really emphasized her dancing over the past few years. But make no mistake, she’s got moves, with a free-flowing, swim-like motion that she occasionally shifts into a slower, sexy, hip-grinding sashay (and then there were the two times she did somersaults — while singing — and didn’t miss a beat).
And while the set wound down with hits like “Call Your Girlfriend” and “With Every Heartbeat,” the encore was a surprise as well, featuring the new album’s slow and robotic “I’m a Human Being” followed by “Who Do You Love,” a song by opening act Kindness that features Robyn. It was a typically unpredictable and self-effacing finale for an artist whose artful ongoing balance of crowd-pleasing and muse-pleasing has brought her to the biggest stage of Madison Square Garden without an ounce of compromise.