Album Of The Week: Carly Rae Jepsen E•MO•TION
I was a snarly 14-year-old punk in training the one time I ever went to Disney World. The whole bajillion-hour drive down to Florida, I sat in the back of my parents’ minivan, listening to Ice Cube’s The Predator on headphones and internally grumbling to myself about how much I was going to hate the Magic Kingdom. Once I actually got into the gate, that feeling lasted about 10 seconds. Then I saw the fountain. My parents had decided that we were going to hit Epcot Center before doing anything else because it was educational or whatever. And near the Epcot entrance, there’s this fountain where these jets of water leap from pad to pad, looking like liquid dolphins. I’d never seen anything like it. I stared at this thing for a long time, just totally transfixed. There was no actual purpose for a fountain like this to exist, and it wasn’t like it would convince anyone to hit the park and cough up money. Someone in power had just spent a whole lot of money so that some brilliant team of engineers could tinker with this fountain, perfecting it and turning it into something that would melt an adolescent fuckface’s sense of resistance on sight. Extremely smart and capable people made this fountain, engineering and immaculately designing it for the sole purpose of causing wonder and delight. Its existence felt like a low-level miracle. I listen to E•MO•TION, and I feel something similar.
The backstory to E•MO•TION doesn’t really matter, but here it is anyway: Carly Rae Jepsen came in third place on Canadian Idol in 2007, and then she went on to co-write and record “Call Me Maybe,” a song that became an inescapable 2012 summer jam after Justin Bieber liked it and then Bieber’s high-powered manager Scooter Braun put his whole machine to work behind it. “Call Me Maybe” was a great song — explosive and immediate and immaculately produced and full of the dizzy headrush energy that comes from that instant-attraction feeling that Jepsen’s lyrics describe. Kiss, the album that Jepsen and Braun rushed out to capitalize on “Call Me Maybe,” was a fairly strong pop album as long as we all agree to pretend that the one Owl City duet never happened, but it had nothing on the level of “Call Me Maybe,” and it disappeared pretty quickly. So Jepsen spent the next few years woodshedding and recording like a fiend, banging out literally hundreds of songs and then knocking that mass of music down into album shape. She recorded music with Swedish pop Midas figure Max Martin, and that music did not make it onto the album, which should give some idea just how stringent that selection process must’ve been. I would pay good money for the E•MO•TION outtakes box set, since everything that made the album is pure gold. The album’s Japanese edition inexplicably hit the market a few months before the American version, and there are bonus tracks on there that will snatch the breath out of your lungs. (I’ve spent entire afternoons with “Black Heart” on repeat, and I’m still not sick of it.)
There’s this new narrative in which would-be pop stars find their voices by venturing outside the studio system, working with indie auteurs and finding themselves whole new audiences on the festival circuit. And that setup has produced some truly great music, like Solange’s True and Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time. But E•MO•TION isn’t that. From a distance, it seems like it should be that. Jepsen worked with Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid on the shimmery, quick-dissolve ballad “All That” and with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij on the burbling “Warm Blood.” But E•MO•TION doesn’t play like critic-bait — or, for that matter, like festival-bait. Instead, it plays like gleaming mall-pop turned way up past 11. “All That” and “Warm Blood” are way busier, more cluttered, more bombastic songs than the sorts of things those various collaborators usually make. And those are just two of the 12 songs on the album, which also includes contributions from music-business lifers like Sia and Shellback. If you’re not listening with the Wikipedia page open, you won’t have any idea who helped out with what. This is a rarity: A major-label job made with an army of producers and songwriters that feels completely cohesive. It plays like one person’s vision.
In the album-planning stages, Braun tells The New York Times that he and Jepsen decided “to stop worrying about singles and focus on having a critically acclaimed album,” which is a ridiculous thing to shoot for. But that’s the management talking, and Scooter Braun is not the auteur behind E•MO•TION. Instead, that distinction goes to Jepsen, who cowrote nearly every song and who has an actual aesthetic, a point-of-view, that an album like this needs. The songs on E•MO•TION are about love and crushes and heartbreak — very different feelings that can start to feel indistinguishable as long as they’re acute enough. There are songs on E•MO•TION that tackle romantic desolation and make it sound like the most fun shit ever. Here’s the hook on “When I Needed You”: “Sometimes I wish that I could change / But not for me / For you / So we could be together forever / But I know, I know that I won’t change for you / Cuz where were you for me? / When I needed someone? / When I needed someone? / When i needed you?” That’s a heavy, complicated, grown-up sentiment, the sort of thing you only realize about yourself and your significant other after you’ve done some serious and painful soul-seeking. And there’s regret in Jepsen’s voice when she sings it. But more than that, there’s excitement. There’s the euphoria that comes when you’ve finally figured out how to tell someone something difficult. In the hands of most other singers, a chorus like that would be a soul-crushed dirge. But Jepsen can’t stop herself from grinning, no matter what.
The music, too, is hell-bent on that joy-rush, no matter what. These songs are absolutely overstuffed with hooks and flourishes and whizjets. Listening to the album, in the wrong mood, can be as exhausting as actual emotion. But those packed, jumpy arrangements, when they hit you right, can feel like a ray of sunshine piercing right through your soul. The M83-esque sax blasts of “Run Away With Me,” the pop-funk slap-bass strutting and perfectly-placed handclaps of “Boy Problems,” the high-impact keyboard-twinkles of “L.A. Hallucinations” — it all adds up to something overwhelming. I was initially surprised that first single “I Really Like You” didn’t hit the way “Call Me Maybe” did; its hook is just as nagging, its crush-message just as volcanic. But there’s no space in the new song. There’s no space in any of these songs. They suffocate you with joy.
I’ve seen a couple of critics call E•MO•TION the album that Taylor Swift was trying to make with 1989. My response to that is: Hey, whoa, slow down there. 1989 is pretty clearly the album that Taylor Swift was trying to make with 1989. But there’s a similar level of craft at work on E•MO•TION. It’s another album where the feelings feed the hooks rather than vice versa, another burnished and powerful piece of pop-music engineering. And that’s a powerful thing. That’s something worthy of wonder.
Other albums of note out this week:
• FKA twigs’ stunning surprise-release EP M3LL155X.
• Myrkur’s moody, atmospheric black metal meditation M.
• Angel Deeradoorian’s idiosyncratic solo album The Expanding Flower Planet.
• Briana Marela’s glacially gorgeous All Around Us.
• Ghost’s rich, theatrical metal album Meliora.
• Gardens & Villa’s psychedelic synth-rocker Music For Dogs.
• Pleasure Leftists’ crashing punk rock debut The Woods Of Heaven.
• Method Man’s why-did-he-never-name-an-album-this-before The Meth Lab.
• Royal Headache’s jerky punker High.
• Hate Eternal’s death metal shitkicker Infernus.
• Mark McGuire vaporwave project the Road Chief’s All My Love cassette.
• Ronnie Stone & The Lonely Riders’ conceptual ’80s-rock revival Møtorcycle Yearbook.
• Various Sigur Rós members’ circus-documentary soundtrack Circe.
• AUTOBAHN’s pulsing post-punker Dissemble.
• Adversarial’s verbose black/death metal opus Death, Endless Nothing, And The Black Knife Of Nihilism.
• Wolfheart’s melodic death metal attack Shadow World.
• Scythian’s revivalist thrasher Hubris In Excelsis.
• Aphex Twin’s AFX EP Orphaned Deejay Selek (2006-2008).
• Horrors frontman Tom Furse’s solo EP Child Of A Shooting Star.
• Sinkane & Peaking Lights’ Mean Dub 12″.