Carly Rae Jepsen's 'E-MO-TION'
What happens when a pop star discovers nuance?
As far as this decade's viral hits go, Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" is the queen of the bunch. The 2012 single, whose meteoric rise was fueled in part by a Justin Bieber co-sign, sold itself on the strength of its rainbow-swirl melody and punch-drunk chord progression. "Maybe" thrilled both heartsick tweens and their twentysomething counterparts — a former "Canadian Idol" finalist, Jepsen was 26 at the time, practically an elder on the Disney-princess pop scene — and ushered the year's other inescapable YouTube anthem, Rebecca Black's "Friday," into the novelty bin.
Rather than follow 2012's Kiss with another collection of slick, focus-grouped pop songs, Jepsen landed on Broadway, where she played Cinderella in Rodgers & Hammerstein's production in 2014. A theater kid at heart, the singer also appeared on Fox's recent "Grease Live" as the bubbly Frenchy. The refresher proved fruitful. Last year, Jepsen returned with a decidedly more nuanced collection of material, E-MO-TION, which she assembled alongside of-the-moment producers like Dev Hynes, Sia, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij.
Though E-MO-TION was poorly promoted and failed to make much noise on the charts — it sold only 16,000 copies its first week, half the total of Kiss — it found an unexpected champion in the tastemaking music-critic set, which dubbed it among the year's best. Spin, Pitchfork, and Stereogum all praised E-MO-TION, which landed at a startling No. 3 on the Village Voice's annual Pazz and Jop critics' poll, behind only Kendrick Lamar and Courtney Barnett and ahead of shoe-in albums from Grimes, Sufjan Stevens, and Sleater-Kinney.
On the surface, E-MO-TION provides the classic pop aesthete with much to cherish. The record trades geometric sharpness for a rounder, synth-soaked patina that owes equally to Cyndi Lauper, Robyn, and Genesis; its brand of contemporary dance music is less Euro-club worship than hazy Los Angeles after-party. Tunes like the minimalist "Warm Blood" and sultry slow jam "All That" find Jepsen settling into an '80s-revival mode that nicely suits her pliable voice and unfussy writing style.
There are other signs of evolution. Jepsen hinted that the new record is a response to the specific angst of one-hit-wonderdom, and it exhibits a sense of rebellion. On "I Really Like You," Jepsen trades innocent flirtation for unrequited lust. Elsewhere, there are casual references to shooting tequila and running red lights. During the writing process, she said, the lyric "warm love" became "Warm Blood." So it's not exactly transgressive stuff, though it seems practically X-rated compared to the squeaky-clean Kiss and its predecessor, the somehow squeakier-clean Tug of War.
Yet ultimately, it's unabashed lovesickness that Jepsen does best. From "Gimmie Love" to "Run Away With Me," E-MO-TION is awash in a starry-eyed brand of romanticism seemingly not far removed from that of Kiss. But Jepsen inhabits the role with new and convincing energy, bringing a stealthy maturity to her teenage dream.
Most significantly, it's not all roses. "I don't want to work it out," she proudly insists on "When I Needed You." No longer is Jepsen waiting around for something to happen — a phone call, maybe? Now, she is the one making moves.