This wasn’t planned
I don’t want to let too much daylight in on the magic here at Loud And Quiet, but our coverage of Primavera Sound is fairly well planned: gigs are divvied up between our writers in advance according to taste and knowledge, research is undertaken, and then out we scuttle into the field, our press cards tucked into our hat-bands, Moleskines and fountain pens poised ready to jot down all the news that’s fit to print. Something like that.
When not assigned to bring you the latest breaking stories, though, each of us bimble around the festival like any old punter, drink in one hand and clashfinder in the other, hoping to stumble over something that reminds us that, as the old unattributable maxim goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and that the reason we all got into this ultimately fairly pointless game in the first place is not because we hope that if we write something witty it might be retweeted by Geoff Barrow, but because there’s something irreplaceable and inescapably life-affirming about sharing a musical event with a gaggle of strangers, spending an hour with people you’ll never talk to, look at, or probably ever see again, but who are all simultaneously forming their own individual and often indelible memories to the same sonic backdrop as you. Those transportative times, when the phrase “300 words by 11am tomorrow please” doesn’t loom large over your participation, when the person singing, for you, in person, on a stage, right now, makes you forget for a moment that you might have left the gas on before you went away, when the endless throbbing Guardian push alerts about the Tory leadership race are dwarfed by a pulsing electronic beat – those times – those are when the bliss happens.
All of which is a roundabout way to say, in case you haven’t already twigged, I went to see Robyn headline Primavera, because why not – I was there, and so was she – and it was, to slip into the vernacular for a moment, fucking perfect. I don’t know masses about Robyn beyond really liking her last two albums. I didn’t do any preparatory research. While watching, I didn’t take any notes or make an effort to commit anything to memory, because I had no plans to write about it until my editor suggested I have a go just now. Instead, I just stood there, and danced there, and stared and listened and sang there, and marvelled at the unalloyed wonder unfolding in front of me, both in the crowd and on the stage, as the crushingly familiar, near-unbearable, overwhelming, electrifying and incurably addictive adrenaline rush of falling in love was translated, again and again, into heartwrenchingly poignant pop music.
The set is initially dressed, like Robyn, entirely in white. A sort of bridal, hopeful purity. A sheer sheet dangles from the stage roof, billowing in the wind over the front row of the crowd like a lace curtain out of a top-floor window on a breezy summer afternoon. There’s a simplicity to it, but also intrigue, like an establishing shot in some doomed romantic Goddard movie. When Robyn tears it down midway through a song, the music ratchets up its strange melancholy euphoria one more notch, and she disappears. The set flushes red as if suddenly pumped with blood by a palpitating heart. A dancer solos. Robyn reappears in a new matching costume.
The self-sabotaging delusion of ‘In Between The Lines’ and ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’ pulse over the crowd. “My drinking is killing me / My smoking is killing me / My diet’s killing me / My ego is killing me“. As she sings her songs about self-inflicted breakdown and unrequited love, the expression on her face is of complete, hopeless yearning, the sort of desperate grimace that takes over your features involuntarily when you realise that there’s no way of getting that which you so deeply want. A wince that betrays a history of emotional rollercoasters. In contrast to so many well-oiled high-kicking pop acts, a face that wills you to believe.
And then there’s the singalong. After 50 minutes of relentless throb, ‘Dancing On My Own’ is slowly introduced. The first verse goes by, then everything stops, a rug pulled from beneath 30,000-odd pairs of feet, leaving a town’s-worth of people to belt out one of the most cathartic choruses ever written to each other, unaccompanied. It’s utterly stomach-flipping, the lurch from rigidly locked house beat to entirely unaided freefalling collective singing, ecstatic and startling and totally unexpected, a sort of aural manifestation of love at first sight (which, you sense, is probably the desired effect). Robyn allows her audience the entire chorus to themselves, a full 30 seconds of collective euphoria that seems to last, blissfully, forever. She pauses, thanks us, then plunges us straight back into the song. “I’m just going to dance all night.” If anything, right now, that doesn’t feel long enough.
She encores with ‘With Every Heartbeat’. In front of me, two burly men snog hard and lustily, as if they’ve only just met and the apocalypse is minutes away (which, given this is the last song, it kind of is). It’s the sort of embrace that you feel Robyn would approve of. As she perhaps narrates their inner monologues (“I don’t look back / And it hurts with every heartbeat”), her band fires throbs and fizzes into the night sky in a sort of musical mimicking of the couple’s physiological responses to one another.
Then that’s it. Floodlights fade up, and a dazzled crowd shuffle off into the festival’s night, treading through crushed water bottles and the remnants of Carly Rae Jepsen’s confetti from the stage’s previous show.
There’s discussion among us later in the night about how some gigs are so precisely perfect they become boring, a sort of post-human mechanical demonstration of apparently inevitable brilliance, like an undefeatable AI chess computer, or HAL-9000, or Manchester City in the second half of last season. There have been one or two of those this year at Primavera, shows that seem so immaculate as to be scarcely believable, and perhaps those lend themselves better to written analysis in the same way that it’s sometimes more satisfying to dissect a complex novel than a pot boiler. That said, Robyn’s performance is also flawless, but in a way that almost defies study, where thinking is trumped by feeling, and reasoning by emotion, in a way where “ffs you just had to be there” is probably as useful a description as the last thousand words you might have just read.
I should add, too, that it’s not lost on me that the TL;DR of this article is “privileged dickhead music writer has epiphany when he stops staring at his phone during gigs and actually listens”; neither has the paradox gone unnoticed of me writing an article about how nice it is not to write about a gig that I’m simultaneously writing about – all for which I can only apologise, and attempt to defend by citing sleep deprivation. Then again, I never meant to write this, so blame my editor. Or, better still, blame Robyn.
Photos by: Sergio Albert. Robyn at Primavera Sound, Friday 31 May.
Follow all of Loud And Quiet’s 2019 Primavera Sound coverage.
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