A sweeping electro-jazz epic underlies haunting poetry about the nature of meaning, art and legacy. Consisting of several movements, this is a truly incredible piece of music from a true pop virtuosa and veteran producers.
existentialism · time · space · history · loneliness · infinity
Like waves washing over the mind, Monument begins with Röyksopp’s clean gliding sounds that slide over each other to create the impression of a wide expanse of aural space. For me, it feels like travelling smoothly through the vast distances of space. We hear a soft electronic bloop that forms the core of the sound. It beats quietly, perfectly for a few moments as the soundscape ebbs and flows around it. The song itself seems to breathe.
Then: a single sound, digitally warped but clear and decisive. It sets up a simple pattern that serves as a motif for most of the song. It beats one, two, three times, and then plays itself backwards: a push and pull, an inescapable flux.
There is a gentle crescendo, and then a real bassline, slow but deliberate, two notes in patient rhythm that becomes the musical skeleton. A calm female voice, alone and almost emotionless, sings:
Make a space for my body
Dig a hole, push the sides apart
This is what I’m controlling
It’s a moat/mould, the inside that I carve
One of Swedish singer Robyn’s trademarks is her ability to convey deep emotion and meaning in simple language. It puts her a cut above many pop stars in that her lyrics can be catchy and accessible while nursing a real emotional heart. But here she is at her most poetic and ambiguous: she speaks of creating a space for herself, defining her life, realising her ambition. Her words also allude to the end of life, the digging of a grave and perhaps the allocation of a small portion of history. I cannot discover whether the official lyric in the last line is ‘moat’ or ‘mould’, but it makes little difference: in living, and as an artist, Robyn is creating space for herself so that it can be filled with her experiences. Her vocals are an expanding ripple in the sea of infinite time and space.
A soaring breeze pushes us into the central motif. Robyn, having carved a space for herself, affirms its purpose:
This will be my monument
This will be a beacon when I’m gone, gone, gone
When I’m gone, gone, gone
When I’m gone
Through creative endeavours, she shares her experience as a human and as an artist to form a monument to a single life — a notch on the bedpost of time. When she is no longer present as a physical monument, her art will continue to speak to future minds, a ‘beacon’ in the conceptual dark for others exploring existence. As she repeats ‘gone’, her words fall rhythmically, guided by the heartbeat of the song; between the repetitions, a little vocoder voice spirals upwards in a catchy crescendo. It is a glitch, a splash of colour in the pulsing void.
As she explains her motivations she is joined by a harmonising voice, another thread in the tapestry of existence intertwining with hers:
So that when the moment comes
I can say I did it all with love, love, love
All with love, love, love
All with love
There is an altruistic streak to most art, but in Robyn’s case these words are particularly apt: much of her music examines love, from all its angles. In her last album Body Talk, for example, love is unrequited (Dancing On My Own), persistent (Indestructible) and joyously bittersweet (Call Your Girlfriend) — to name just three titles. Elsewhere, her music is full of fun, female strength, positivity, even transcendence. She opens up her soul for others, not by spilling explicit details of real-life drama, but by earnestly exploring emotions in an abstract yet highly personal fashion. She feels that this is as much for humanity as a whole as it is for herself; perhaps she and her art can be a lighthouse to guide future wandering souls.
A shiny synth rises sublimely from the background to play in the free space before fading gently as Robyn begins her second verse.
Make a cast of my body
Pull back out, so that I can see
Let go of how you knew me
Let go of what I used to be
Robyn acknowledges here that there are two sides to the coin of identity. The first is internal, formed of emotions, values and experiences — the view from inside oneself; the second kind of identity is built from other people’s impressions and interpretations. Often, these identities can be strikingly dissimilar. An artist must consider these two aspects when creating: how their work seems to them in the context of their lives, and how it will seem to others with their own contextual prisms.
When she expresses herself, it is as if she makes a ‘cast’ of her body as a sculptor copies the shape of their subject. Her momentary character is captured by her artwork. She is acutely aware of the disconnect between her inner identity and her outward expression: like an out-of-body experience, she tries to see herself from outside, viewing her mark on the world as it appears to others. She explores life after death here, too: when she dies, and transforms into something very different, she will live on through the monument of her work. Those who knew her while she was alive will have to ‘let go’ of her as a living being and embrace her legacy.
None of this comes off as self-important or conceited; rather, it is like a meditation on what it means to exist — a topic that hangs in our minds whether we like it or not. The song celebrates the idea that, through the endeavours of our lives, we can seize her space and try to use it meaningfully, helpfully.
Robyn reiterates the song’s defining statement, the harmony glittering pleasingly beneath its repetition, the vocoder curling at the end of each line like an aural flourish:
I will let this monument
Represent a moment of my life, life, life
As she sings ‘life’ for the final time, the core of the instrumental dissolves to leave us with the washing soundscapes of the song’s opening. A powerful soaring sound arises from the flow, curling slowly as the vocal flourish from the chorus drifts past — an ordered idea amongst the blur, keeping time even in the abyss. After a few moments the bassline returns, a gentle pulse, driving us ever onwards. The motifs of the song build steadily, winding around each other; the effect is, again, one of movement across immeasurable spaces. At one point, the noise glitches artfully as the sheer scale of the sound seems to become too much.
And then, softly through the synth mist, its muted tones dusky and imperfect, comes a single saxophone. A strikingly down-to-earth, human sound among the transcendent rush of the song so far, it delicately plays the vocal melody; before long it is joined by another sax. Their rendition is a notable contrast to Robyn’s clear, measured delivery of the tune: it is meandering, imprecise, subdued in some places. You can clearly hear the human blowing air into the instrument, breathing creative soul into the swirling void as they begin to take small liberties with the melody, riffing, freewheeling.
As with all things, the saxophones eventually fade, revealing the perpetual rhythm of the track, beating all this time. The dust begins to settle as Robyn repeats the second verse, the last line — ‘Let go of who I used to be’ — echoing as if for the last time, fading and spiralling as if into the depths of history.
Gradually, the deep earthy tones of tribal drums take over, punctuated by smart rapping and slapping. They tap out a tight syncopated pattern, soon joined by a bass guitar that quietly bounces downwards in an easy-going fashion. Finally, the saxophone returns, understated but playful. Together, all the instruments jam jazzily for a few bars. In the background, otherworldly, almost angelic voices ooh and aah; I am reminded of perfect, eternal beings watching the impossibly short-lived creative play of lesser creatures… and smiling, perhaps.
The saxophone lets out a final, expressive whine — a last burst of imagination in the infinity of consciousness. As the beat itself begins to fade, the ethereal voices inevitably become more isolated, until they are underscored only by the bass guitar. With two closing, almost perfunctory notes, that bassline brings the track to a swift close.
This track is astonishing, both in its gorgeous instrumentation and its unique subject matter. In a way, the ideas here are life-affirming: they examine our incredible place in the universe in the context of our ability to disturb the eternal flow of time. Robyn once again manages to blend the abstract and the highly personal with unmatched verve and sincerity.