Carly Rae Jepsen, “E-MO-TION,” and The Uncrapifying Power Of Pop
So, I have this really crummy day, right? I’m talking wake up too early and can’t fall back to sleep, headache all morning, traffic to work, arguments with the co-workers, traffic from work, can’t find parking so you circle the block thirty seven times banking on a karma to save you kind of day. All the “how-to-make-a-crap-day-drag-even-longer” check boxes have been long since knocked out by the time I finally fumble my way back into my apartment and crumble down into my computer chair to find a link from a friend to a music video for a song I had until now avoided on principle (there are only so many times you can say “Really” in a chorus before my head explodes). But today I am too tired to make any kind of stand. Today I cave.
Cue three minutes of Tom Hanks lip-synching to the catchiest hook I’ve heard in a year (no, I’m not forgetting you Ms. Swift) while going through his morning routine, interacting with Forest Gump fans, and walking the streets while getting swiped on tinder, all culminating in a bizarre false pregnancy confession (by Hanks), a snow-lined dance party, and a barely noticeable guest appearance by a remarkably inoffensive Justin Bieber. Carly Rae Jepsen, appearing in only slightly more than the final sequence of her own video, justifies every ridiculous repetition in “I Really Really Really Really Really Really Like You” with a genuine enthusiasm and humor that transcends your typical polished/packaged star. Crap day officially un-crapified.
I bring up this video and it’s powers of uncrapification because they exemplify the brilliance that Carly brings to the table. If you come to E-MO-TION, (Jepsen’s latest release and followup to oh-my-god-how-is-this-song-still-stuck-in-my-head hit of the decade “Call Me Maybe” and its parent album Kiss) expecting to see the evolution of a young artist taking her craft to a new level, you will not be disappointed. If you expected that evolution to transform Carly into something other than a pop musician, you certainly will be, and by no fault of her own. Any pretense or expectation of something “more” than bubblegum and melancholy and dancing the night away is an external imposition here, as nothing in this young artist’s career has ever indicated a significant stray or desire to do anything but build upon catchy genius of her breakout hit. And build she has: channeling all the best parts of the 80’s pop factory that brought us “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” through a filter of contemporary powerhouse production and filled to the brim with compositions as effective at making you smile as they are at getting you onto the dance floor, Jepsen has offered us one of the best pop albums in years.
The highlights are numerous: “Run Away With Me” thrills as E-MO-TION’s opening salvo, with a harsh synth cry leading into a heavy 6/8 dance anthem that could have just as easily been pulled from the tracklist of Robyn’s next record. The Dev Hynes produced might-as-well-have-been-a-Prince-cover “All That” sits perfectly in its swampy pocket, building slowly towards a final and epic reharmonization in its last chorus. “Let’s Get Lost,” (a personal favorite on the album) muddies up its hook in tight harmony, an almost-nod to R&B/Neo-Soul superimposed above an unshakeable and syncopated groove. Rhythmically, it is in many ways the album’s most engaging number, with an interwoven patchwork of palm-muted guitar, rhythmic synths and percussion coming together to provide a constantly shifting background behind a heavy bass anchor. Jepsen shares writing credit across the record’s twelve tracks, underpinning her already recognized talent as a loveable pop star with a not-to-be-ignored wealth of composition chops.
This is not to say the record is without missteps, which come with greater frequency as it approaches its ending. Sia Furher, brilliant architect of some of our generations more simultaneously evocative and catchy hits (and co-composer on the significantly stronger “Boy Problems”) misses her mark on “Making The Most Of The Night.” It's the first real moment on E-MO-TION where we are afforded the opportunity to turn our head away from the constant influx of hooks, bogged down by an underwhelming chorus and lack of emotive delivery throughout on Jepsen’s part. Not a bad song by any stretch, just not up to the standards set by the preceeding five tracks (and likely a better if fit performed by Sia herself, who’s characteristicly anguished break could have raised the vocal to a higher emotional plane…but I guess we’ll have to just hold out until the next album).
An underwhelming Britney Spears impression on “LA Hallucinations” leads us into “Warm Blood”, a Rostam Batmanglij (of Vampire Weekend fame) co-composition which handily secures the record’s “What Could Have Been” honors. The second to last track’s strongest moments are its earliest, when a rhythmic ambiguity and feel drives the song forward without too much pronouncement, allowing Carly’s higher-register vocal to float above the top. As the song progresses, that ambiguity transforms into full-blown disconnect, discarding subtlety in favor of a heavy-handed Burial-esque swing that never fully matches it’s accompanying instrumentation. The melody follows a similar decent, quickly loosing track of its initial concise-yet-ethereal center and putting too much faith in an underdeveloped hook to save it from aimlessness.
But stick it out through the down moments (there are plenty of hooks to convince you to do so) and the payoff is well worth it: “When I Needed You” is Cindi Lauper track buried underwater, a wash of synth stabs and ambience propelled forward by a muddy, angry, and brilliant bass performance. This is in many ways E-MO-TION’s most ambition song from a production standpoint, but never sacrifices it’s pervasively pop sensibility, riding the lifeline of Jepsen and co-writer Ariel Rechtshaid’s incredible post chorus hook and shameless willingness to camp the hell out of its party chorus. It is a simultaneously celebratory and melancholy exit, exactly the tone that defined some of the past centuries greatest hits, and exactly what keeps Carly Rae Jepsen on the smarter edge of contemporary pop.
And those are the terms on which we should be considering her; not whether Jepsen has achieved some lyrical or harmonic benchmark exceeding the norm of the mainstream, but how well she has accomplished the goals she has set for herself. E-MO-TION is an album that reclaims all of the 80’s glory and danceable melancholy and repackages it effortlessly inside a contemporary, just-polished-enough-to-be-relevant sound. With no effort to be any less accessible, it reminds us that pop music can and should be both catchy and clever, both musically engaging and get-downable. And I’m not sure we could have asked for anything more.