Be glad that Carly Rae Jepsen isn’t reinterpreting the Great American Songbook, because for a while there, it seemed like she was going to do just that.
Back when Jepsen auditioned for Canadian Idol (her parents supporting her love of music from a very young age), she came off as sweet and charming, blessed with a voice that was expressive, warm, and very inviting. Although she made it to the Top 3, she was eliminated after she delivered a bland, tone-deaf interpretation of Janis Ian’s signature tune “At Seventeen”, although luckily enough for her, she generated enough public interest with her performances that it wasn’t long before she was picked up by a label, and in 2008, her debut album Tug of War was released. The album was a sparse bit of adult contemporary pop that wouldn’t be too far out of Colbie Callait’s wheelhouse. The lead single? A fairly decent take on John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders”. Then, after the somewhat bolder pop of the album’s title track was shipped to radio, her third single, “Bucket“, quixotically incorporated the old standard “There’s a Hole in My Bucket”, which when coupled with its modern AC-radio intentions, made for an odd pairing, to say the least (although, in its defense, it wasn’t as facepalm-terrible as JoJo’s wretched sampling of Africa’s “Toto”).
Thank goodness for “Call Me Maybe”.
With Jepsen’s sophomore album Kiss released this week, “Call Me Maybe” is actually a full year old, showing just how long it can take before certain songs catch on (feel free to ask Foster the People about how long it took before “Pumped Up Kicks” actually took off). Initially, Jepsen’s success was limited to Canada, but it wasn’t until Justin Bieber & friends released a goofy homemade music video of the track that it began to really pick up steam. It is, after all, an absolutely flawless pop single: those synth orchestra stabs in the chorus making the song sound like nothing on the radio right now, the melody sweet, the sentiment simple, the whole thing instantly hummable and readily available for numerous interpretations. Although its intentions were modest, the song would soon achieve the level of ubiquity that is shared by only the rarest of cultural game-changers, bumping shoulders with the likes of Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”. Oh, and let’s not forget about every single internet parody video of the song ever (for our money, we think this Dark Knight Rises one might be the best).
Thus, Jepsen is at a crossroads: does she continue trying to imitate her heroes like Joni Mitchell (word of advice: don’t), or does she embrace her full-on pop side, diving head on into the Top 40 universe? With Kiss it is abundantly clear that she chose the latter, and, somewhat surprisingly, the move has paid off remarkably well.
A quick scan of the album credits and some of pop music’s go-to hitmakers are nowhere to be found: there’s no Dr. Luke or Ryan Tedder, no Shellback or Benny Blanco. There are two co-write assists from Dallas Austin, a single track with Max Martin’s hands on it, and … that’s it. Jepsen has opted to work with a very close circle of producers and songwriters, and she co-wrote every track on her album save three. Jepsen’s game of spot-the-influence continues even on the peppy opener “Tiny Little Bows”, which despite a charming bit of overproduction (string stabs and synth-squeals all quick-edited BT-style), still manages to carry a sugar-sweet melody and features — of all things — a slowed-down sample of Sam Cooke’s classic “Cupid” part-way through. Unlike JoJo’s pointless re-appropriation of Toto, this bit of sampling actually hems close to the intention of the song, and if this gets one tween closer to discovering who Sam Cooke is, all the better.
On a songwriting level, Kiss manages to avoid the single most common pitfall of most mainstream pop albums: an overabundance of ballads. Rather smartly, every single song (save the admittedly inveigling Bieber-assisted track “Beautiful”, which has the misfortune of sharing the exact same lyrical theme as One Direction’s tramped-up “Summer Night” rewrite “What Makes You Beautiful”) is either mid- or uptempo, meaning the album’s 42 minute runtime breezes by fairly quickly. The production is warm and inviting, although its default setting is “amiable synth-pop” — Jepsen doesn’t detour far from her new sound. For those wondering: no, there is no knock-’em-dead classic on the same level of “Call Me Maybe” on here, but the songs featured here are by-and-large surprisingly strong. An Owl City album this is not (but more on him later).
Just listen to likely single “This Kiss”, which opens with more bright synth stabs, setting itself up as what will surely be another anonymous entry into pop radio history, but then right at the onset, two strums from a light, unamplified guitar drops in, the synths drop out, and ‘lo and behold, the song is standing on a more emotionally-engaging grounding than anything Jepsen’s contemporaries could do. Even when the synths come on really strong (as they do on “Turn Me Up” and “Guitar String/Wedding Ring”), they never reach “four-on-the-floor” territory, as Jepsen prefers her tracks to never turn as aggressive in the way that Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” (or even Bieber’s own “As Long As You Love Me”) do. If she wanted to, Jepsen could have easily gone that route, but given this is a girl who wrote virtually every song on her debut by her lonesome, she seems less interested in easy hits than she is in crafting actually sturdy songs.
That being said, Jepsen’s greatest strength — and the reason why Kiss works as well as it does — lies with her voice. Whereas artists like Katy Perry and Selena Gomez tend to succumb to the artifice of performing in their recordings (i.e. they’re singing pretty but their tone proves devoid of true emotion/meaning/intention), Jepsen makes everything sound natural. She never belts nor holds a sustained note for very long, but song-for-song, she makes her tales of courtship sound 100% natural, exuding an easy, relatable charisma. Even when she comes across an usual lyric (like she does at the start of “Tonight I’m Getting Over You”, which starts with “I wanna smash your fears / And drunken off your tears”), she manages to make it work. The chorus to “Guitar String/Wedding Ring” is an equally hard sell (“If you cut a piece of guitar string / I would wear it like it’s a wedding ring / Wrapped around my finger / You know what I mean?”), but her inflection on “wrapped around my finger” is pitch-perfect, sliding up on every other syllable, ultimately sticking the intention of the song when the words sometimes fail her. In the end, the intention is more important than the words that get her there, and Jepsen is talented enough to make it work every single time …
… almost. Despite its numerous strengths, Kiss is not perfect. Aside from the occasional odd line peppering the album, it’s the closing song, “Your Heart is a Muscle” — a pure 90s-pop throwback that’s a dead ringer for pre-Konichiwa Robyn — that unfortunately could’ve been sung by just about starlet without anyone taking notice, exuding an aire of anonymity that’s more in line with deep Britney album cuts than a standout singer like Jepsen. Even worse is the desperate-for-a-hit Owl City spot “Good Time”, which is about as forced-sounding as pop music gets. When you get right down to it, Adam Young’s voice is just an awkward instrument — it’s something he’s able to get around in his productions about half of the time — but when he & Jepsen performed the song recently on Conan, it was obvious not only that the hired hand guitar player was actually making the song sound better than the recorded version, but also which of the two singers was actually meant for the stage.
As time wears on, Kiss will not be looked at as one of the all-time great pop albums. Yet song-for-song, Jepsen proves she has more talent than half of the stars out there, managing to not only sell virtually every word on the album but also managing to make it all sound off-the-cuff and effortless, ultimately creating a bubbly pop playground that is both catchy and endearing without having to turn base or crude to get there. At the moment, Carly Rae Jepsen is best known for a monstrous #1 worldwide smash. If she keeps putting out quality material like virtually all of Kiss, that thankfully will not be the only thing that defines her.