What do you call pop music that doesn’t reach the mainstream? As today’s Top 40 continues to be gentrified by esoteric personalities squeezing out populist idealism, chart success seems to be determined less by aiming for the bleachers than it does by defining yourself in the margins. But if a pop record spins in a forest and no one is around to hear it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t the best album of the year. While classics in modern times are being christened to the likes of insular iconoclasts a la Kanye West, aspiring for the universal is still a vital avenue for influence. And with E•MO•TION, Carly Rae Jepsen’s inarguably classic third studio album, the canon of pop music has found its latest entry.
In a way, E•MO•TION is a second debut for the Canadian songwriter, who previously gained notoriety with her infectious, if borderline-novelty, hit “Call Me Maybe,” which broke the record for the best selling digital single of all time. But in spite of the song’s wide reach, Jepsen risked being eclipsed by its success, and the infamy surrounding the inescapable tune constructed a box around her identity as a musician. Yet Jepsen’s grand return three years after peak “Call Me Maybe” shows she’s beaten the odds and managed to break from any previously outlined pigeonholes: E•MO•TION has not only redefined Jepsen as one of the most exciting acts in indie (and not by design, as her management likely wished a grander scale for the inexplicably underselling album), but has become the de facto audio guide to romantic desire.
The album sounds like falling in love, but before you ever hit the ground. It’s pure rising euphoria, excitement over possibilities and appreciation when those possibilities pan out. Jepsen yearns for connection, whether it is standing right beside her or down a road of fantasy. Yet, as a statement, it’s dynamic — with each of the 12 tracks (as well as the five absolutely essential bonus tracks) zeroing in on a singular sensation and maneuvering thoroughly through its intricacies. The album is immaculate — it’s a spotless pop construction, but with Jepsen’s beating heart at the center.
E•MO•TION aims for the hearts of critics, but without losing any of the spark that makes pop music so universally accessible and wholly exciting. Perhaps to refute any claims of amateurishness in response to “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen connected with some of the most inspired co-writers in contemporary music, such as Rostam Batmanglij (formerly of Vampire Weekend) and Devonté Hynes (of Blood Orange). The title track comes across as a splash of watercolor in its striding strut, carefully navigating to a massive hook by never rushing in a way that sells the rest of the song short. “Making the Most of the Night” alternatively finds its way to the most bombastic chorus on the album with a driving rhythm that crashes directly into a proclamation of devotional support, an emotional whammy co-written by Sia, but uniquely and wholly a product of Jepsen’s personality.
On the other side of the sonic spectrum, “All That” emotes through pure Prince sparkle — courtesy of co-writers Devonté Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid. The rich bass provides a deep sense of gravity, as Jepsen seemingly draws closer to her object of adoration over the song’s five-minute run time. The false promise of prom magic could seemingly prove true for future generations fortunate enough to have this song soundtrack their slow dances, and Jepsen holds this power through her music, which is so unabashedly invested in the concept of infatuation that it’s nothing short of revelatory. She’s the least cynical singer to shoot for the radio, and the most exuberant to fall short.
For an album focused on the idealistic beginnings of what could become love, Jepsen is comfortably grounded. She’s compassionate, but not clueless — she’s constantly reminding you that love spurs out of friendship; that attraction is born of the same source as affection. There’s a distinct vision guiding the album’s deconstruction of emotion, as Jepsen exercises a gifted artistic craftsmanship. Her cadence is absorbing; her pen evocative — with every individual component irreplaceably reflective of the project as a whole. The record is expertly paced and laser-focused — every note seems laboriously loved into existence.
Carly Rae Jepsen is truly a great auteur, exerting her buoyant personality all over detailed scenes precisely depicted using the fewest possible words. She sits at the pit of a deep crush and provides a lens to her surroundings: “Baby let’s go get lost, I like that you’re driving slow/Keeping my fingers crossed, that maybe you’ll take the long way home,” is a succinct way of placing the listener right in the heat of the action. Rarely does Jepsen find resolution for her longing, but she doesn’t need to — she knows the momentum of falling in love is the most thrilling part.
But don’t mistake her exhilaration over attraction for naive idealism: Jepsen is aware of the risk, but can distill the essence of the complex aftermath in potent poetry. “Sometimes I wish that I could change/But not for me, for you/So we could be together forever/But I know that I won’t change for you/Cause where were you for me/When I needed someone,” she wrestles on closing track “When I Needed You.” Relationships are defined by their reciprocity — but they aren’t secured by simple desire. Jepsen’s not wrong to approach her romantic life with wide-eyed wonder, because she’s safe in knowing that loving yourself is more important than any external validation.
But she’s not afraid either of giving herself completely in a relationship either, and this extends to the one she has with her listeners — E•MO•TION was created in collaboration, but while each contributor provided their stylistic cues for individual tracks, Jepsen let herself dissolve completely into every facet of her work. These songs are about universal feelings, but they are uniquely inseparable from Carly Rae Jepsen. They can’t exist beyond her — each word would impart a different impact coming from anyone else.
As a headliner for Noise Pop this year, Carly Rae Jepsen is delivering her music through the only voice that can. You won’t find a show with more heart anywhere else.
Carly Rae Jepsen, Monika, Cardiknox
Feb 27, 2016