“There’s a stereotype idea of what a pop star is, and I don’t really fit into that,” says Jepsen, who collaborated with indie darlings like Dev Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij for the set. “The expectation that every song you’re putting out is doing well on radio — that’s stuff that you can’t control. To try would drive you insane.” — Carly Rae Jepsen (Billboard, 2015-08-14)
“With my last album, Kiss, I was learning about the rules of pop writing. And with Emotion, I was aware of them — but then I decided to break them.” — Carly Rae Jepsen (Entertainment Weekly, 2015-08-21)
“Call Me Maybe” wasn’t just a “Song of the Summer”: it was a goddamn phenomenon. It reached a cultural plane that is shared only with rare gems like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” or Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”, songs that were so utterly ubiquitous and so unanimously loved that they generated thousands of original covers, hundreds of parodies, and ruled the charts for a good long while until we as a species got sick of it’s incessant overplay and were determined to never hear it again. For the wispy-voiced Carly Rae Jepsen, her success cut both ways, as she ended up selling a staggering 7.6 million copies of “Call Me Maybe”, but her corresponding album, Kiss, only moved 292,000 units, showing a great disparity between what many viewed as a “one hit wonder” and what the former Canadian Idol runner-up wanted to accomplish as an artist.
Although she decamped to a Broadway production of Cinderella for inspiration following the world’s big “Call Me Maybe” comedown, all of this glosses over the fact that Kiss was actually a rather fantastic pop record. It was sugary and unabashedly girly but it was also caked in optimism, packed with tons of earworm-ready choruses, and never crossed over into the realm of the crass or the overly sentimental (well, maybe aside from that Justin Bieber duet). Critics damned it with faint praise, and were quick to note that a disc filled with 11 other attempts to capture the pop zeitgeist just wasn’t cutting it, and it looks as if Jepsen agreed with them.
It’s for this reason that E·MO·TION, her third full-length, arrives on waves upon waves of hype, her collaborations with indie heroes like Dev Hynes (who similarly helped reinvent Solange as an indie pop wonder) and HAIM producer Ariel Rechtshaid helping to paint a narrative of the corporate one-hit-wonder girl making it on her own all while causing rock critics to trip over themselves coming up with new, inventive ways to praise what is the don’t-you-dare-argue-with-me pop album of the year. Heck, they even landed Tom Hanks for the music video as a way to exemplify the multi-quadrant appeal of what will undoubtedly go down as everything Taylor Swift’s 1989 tried to be but wasn’t.
There’s just one tiny little problem with all of this adulation: it’s completely unfounded.
It’s not that E·MO·TION is a bad album (it’s not) nor is it that it tries to do the whole ’80s synth-pop thing better than TayTay (it doesn’t, but that’s a moot point given that the eternal K-pop machine is already doing it better than either of them). The problem with E·MO·TION is that even with its indie-pop brain trust trying to arrange every note for maximum pleasure-center overload, Jepsen has overlooked the one element that made Kiss such a ringing success: her voice. On the last album, her squeaky pipes had a bent of honesty to them that engaged the listener in a surprisingly personal way, elevating her mostly-conventional lyrics to a higher plane. On E·MO·TION, she treats her own vocals and sometimes even her own lyrics as an afterthought, making the melody the centerpiece but the content a mere add-on, an effect which might dazzle the ears but ultimately leaves the listener feeling emotionally vacant.
Need proof? Just take “Boy Problems”, co-written by Sia and produced by pop music wunderkid Greg Kurstin, which features those rubbery ’80s synths, shiny rhythm guitar strums, and a chorus that questions whether or not the narrator just broke up with her boyfriend. The music strikes all the right poses, but by doubling up Jepsen’s vocals on both the pre-chorus and actual chorus, her lovely voice, often coming off as charismatically earnest, here sounds hollow, empty. There is a time and place for placid, dry intonation (Rihanna’s “Umbrella” wouldn’t have sounded the same without those dry “ellas” trailing out the backend of the chorus) but it is not here, leaving Jepsen to sing only in obligation tones, robbing the song of the emotional grounding she needs to drive the point home.
Even “L.A. Hallucinations”, which sounds like an amalgam of Clams Casino and ’90s-era Max Martin boyband pop, oscillates between a unique perspective about the hollowness of the L.A. experience (“Planes I’m hopping, cards I’m dropping / No shop can fill me up / There’s a little black hole in my golden cup / So you pour and I’ll say stop”) to instantly-dated shade-throwing that comes off as pointlessly snarky instead of actually-pointed (“BuzzFeed buzzards and TMZ crows / What can I say that you don’t already know?”). Jepsen was never a great lyricist, but she was never a bad one either, and although she co-writes every single song here, some of these compositions suffer from overreach, as Jepsen clearly has a lot to say but sometimes just lacks the nuance to convey it effectively.
The more E·MO·TION plays on, the more the sonics glitter and the more Jepsen is afraid to expose the vulnerability in her voice that we heard the last time around, and tracks like the effervescent “Let’s Get Lost” and the downright schmaltzy “All That” read as pleasurable enough experiences but lack the staying power that made Kiss such an unexpected thrill. Additionally, by leaning as hard as she does on the same ’80s synth-pop tropes over and over again, a few too many songs share the same sonic elements (i.e. that strobe-synth pulse that opens both “Warm Blood” and “Your Type”) making an album that’s painted in such highlighter-bright pastels sound like it’s lapping itself from time to time.
Yet even with all of this in mind, E·MO·TION‘s strongest moments come not from when Jepsen is trying to find that sweet spot between the ’80s and the now but instead when she actually picks a side and commits. Yes, “I Really Like You” is still a killer slice of expertly-composed modern pop, but closer “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” dives into its full-fledged Bronski Beat obsession with a verse that might actually be catchier than its chorus, all while “Warm Blood” uses a pitch-shifted post-chorus to paint cold lines (“I’ve got a cavern of secrets / None of them are for you”) against the warm pulse of a regulated strobe synth, making for a rather delectable poison pill. (Also, if you were to stand here and argue that each of the three songs included on E·MO·TION‘s bonus edition could’ve been swapped out for lesser tracks on the album proper, that is an argument you could easily win.)
Make no mistake, E·MO·TION is still a very pleasing album if not just a shade overambitious, clearly trying too hard to make the same genius pop moments that Kiss churned them out with effortless flair. Now go back to that pull-quote at the top of the review, the one where Jepsen says that during the creation of this album, she was aware of the rules of pop music “but then I decided to break them.” She might be getting ahead of herself somewhat, as this emotional (and musical) territory has already been mined, but if anyone is going to actually break the pop music sound barrier and take the genre into uncharted territory, Jepsen may have just handed us a reason to put our faith in her all over again.