Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Carly Rae Jepsen Dedicated

Four years ago, Carly Rae Jepsen emerged as this generation’s preeminent chronicler of old-fashioned love stories. Her songs are hopeful and romantic, antithetical to the cynicism of the modern age. The Canadian musician’s third LP, E•MO•TION, was an album of extremes: all-encompassing love and heartache. It was lightning in a bottle, cinematic in scope and razor-sharp in execution. E•MO•TION firmly established Jepsen as an underground hero, and it also set the bar for a follow-up impossibly high. How could anything possibly measure up to all the superlatives that have trailed the fan-dubbed Queen Of Everything?

To put it simply, Dedicated is no E•MO•TION. It’s very much just a collection of pop songs. Mostly pretty good ones, sure, but it’s hard to imagine it inspiring the same level of fervor as E•MO•TION or converting anyone new over to Jepsen’s camp. E•MO•TION was sort of just a collection of songs, too, but it excelled in abundance — it was absolutely bursting with great songs, spilling out into a deluxe edition and, eventually a B-sides collection and a healthy black market of leaks. It’s obviously too early to tell if Dedicated will have that same kind of long-tail, but it’s definitely not the same overwhelming listening experience that E•MO•TION was. It’s more akin to Jepsen’s 2012 album Kiss, more sonically developed, of course, but with a similar hit-to-miss ratio.

It’s also decidedly not a big statement album in the same way that the best pop albums of the last few years (Melodrama, Honey) have been. E•MO•TION felt like it had stakes, its own meta-narrative of Jepsen throwing herself so hard into the album in order to not be pigeon-holed into the “Call Me Maybe” box. Jepsen is at a different point in her career now — she’s beloved and she’s proved that she’s much more than a single song, but Dedicated could still stand to push a little harder.

There are enough serviceable songs here to fill out a playlist and satiate parties for the next couple years until Jepsen releases whatever’s next, but Dedicated is a bit of a missed opportunity to be more adventurous with her vaulted pop status. The cast of collaborators is much less exciting this time around, Jepsen opting for low-profile topliners instead of artists with their own point of view that push her outside the box. (The few notable exceptions, like Jack Antonoff and Noonie Bao and underrated pop songwriter MNDR, mostly have their hands on the best songs.) Instead, we’re getting bland songs to soundtrack inspirational Queer Eye ads that don’t really stand out in the context of an entire album.

As a whole, Dedicated’s palette is more muted. It’s more in line with the current vogue of anesthetized songs than E•MO•TION was, which felt like a bright burst in the face of pop’s moody grays. Part of that is by design. Jepsen has joked in interviews that the album’s working title was Music To Clean Your House To, and there’s certainly enough energy here to accompany a furious bath scrubbing, but that doesn’t seem like a particularly bold aspiration.

Dedicated is pulling from different strains of ’80s and ’90s music than E•MO•TION did, turning toward house and disco and sultry R&B. It’s all snaps and pops instead of saxes and drops. This leads to some great results, moving Jepsen’s sound in some cool new directions. Early single and album opener “Julien” is a highlight, a shimmering shuffle that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. “I’ll Be Your Girl” makes Jepsen’s high-stake love game sound like a luxurious car chase. It was written with Patrik Berger and John Hill, two songwriting heavyweights, and its hook finds Jepsen breathlessly at jealousy’s door: “I go crazy, see red when she’s touching you now/ You’re my baby, come to bed, I’ll be your girl.”

“Want You In My Room,” which was co-written with Antonoff, ranks among Jepsen’s best ever. She drops her tendency for thinly veiled innuendo and slides straight into full-on horndog. “I wanna do bad things to you/ Slide on through my window,” she beckons on it. “I want you in my room/ Baby, don’t you want me to?” Another great one is “Everything He Needs,” which interpolates Harry Nilsson’s Popeye movie track “He Needs Me” into a song that’s theatrical in its sycophantic dedication, complete with a spoken-word breakdown where Jepsen lists off how she needs to be needed: “Physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, sexually, all the ways.” All the ways!

But the album’s moodier, more interior approach results in some songs that don’t land. “Feels Right” is emblematic of some of the more inferior tracks’ problems. It sounds anonymous, Jepsen’s hook in this case is literally swallowed up by the whiny crooning of Los Angeles duo Electric Guest, who sing the hook with none of the winsome charm or personality that lets Jepsen get away with some of her cornier lines. (Remember “Buzzfeed buzzards and TMZ crows”?!) That’s a recurring issue with some of songs on the album, where the music just doesn’t match up with or overtake Jepsen’s occasionally weak lyrics — she leans into cliché on “Right Words, Wrong Time,” and the whole conceit of “The Sound” stretches thin over three minutes.

Most of those less-than-great songs will undoubtedly scratch the Jepsen itch when the better tracks get worn out, but E•MO•TION never had that issue: All of the songs were unreservedly great. It’s hard not to wonder what gems were left on the Dedicated cutting room floor. As with E•MO•TION, Jepsen says that she wrote a couple hundred songs for the album, and Dedicated just doesn’t really feel like it represents the best of them — and if it does, then that’s a letdown.

With all that said, Dedicated is still pretty good, it just lacks the transcendence that made E•MO•TION undeniably one of the best pop albums of the decade. It’s a hard ask for every album to reach those heights, but it can’t help but seem a little disappointing. Still, Jepsen is settling in just fine for the long haul, an admirable feat in a pop climate so quick to discard its stars. She’s still an expert at writing about the finer points of love, but Dedicated ends up feeling more like a transition period than a whole new chapter. She has a captive audience in her fanbase, but a lot of Dedicated feels like it’s still aiming for the nosebleeds when there are more than enough people in the pit.

Dedicated is out 5/17 via School Boy/Interscope.