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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

Carly Rae Jepsen gives voice to 'Emotion'

Erin Rice | The Observer

Carly Rae Jepsen’s breakthrough hit “Call Me Maybe” was not merely a song, but an inescapable phenomenon in the summer of 2012. Its success proved that in an age when music listeners have millions of songs at their fingertips, it was still possible for a pop single to facilitate a shared cultural experience. What was so appealing about “Call Me Maybe” was its innocence, a song less about love than infatuation, the giddiness of its subject matched by those MIDI string stabs.

The aptly-titled “Emotion,” Jepsen’s second major label album, builds on the promise of “Call Me Maybe,” its songs possessing a remarkable specificity of emotion when it comes to desire and longing. When Jepsen pleads, “This is the part / You’ve got to say / All that you’re feeling, feeling,” on the opening track, “Run Away With Me,” it encapsulates the ethos of her songwriting on this album. “Emotion” traffics in pop songs marked by their radical vulnerability. It's an album that believes deeply in sharing all that you’re feeling in the moment, in giving voice to the momentary infatuation which so often goes unexpressed but is no less real.

It helps that Jepsen’s songwriting is surrounded by the year’s best pop production, drawing upon ‘80s synthpop revivalism in both its Top 40 (Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo) and underground incarnations (Sky Ferreira, Solange). Jepsen smartly reached out to the producers behind those records, assembling a murderers’ row of collaborators that includes Shellback, Rami Yacoub, Sia, Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid. The result is a sleek sound, all bright synths and booming drums, that boasts as much in the way of critical cred as it does massive hooks.

These songs would buckle under the weight of their expensive-sounding production, though, if Jepsen did not possess such a strong mastery of pop songcraft. The hooks are incredibly catchy, sure, but they are always grounded in the specific emotions she is conveying, each song falling along a different point in the timeline of a relationship. The best of these is “Run Away With Me,” which plays like “Teenage Dream” by way of “Midnight City,” replete with a transcendent synthesized sax line. “BABY! TAKE ME! TO THE! FEELING!” she screams on the chorus, sounding triumphantly in the moment and fully subsumed in the throes of desire. “I Really Like You,” likewise, is the giddy high of a new crush, with Jepsen breathlessly professing, “I really, really, really, really, really, really like you.”

Yet, those who know Jepsen only as the doe-eyed narrator of "Maybe" will be surprised by how violent and all-consuming her idea of infatuation can be on this album: "be tormented by me, babe," "here I come to hijack you," and "all I want to do is get into your head." After the initial excitement of a relationship, the narrators of her songs are frequently wracked with self-doubt and constantly worried that they've said the wrong thing. On the chorus of "Gimmie Love," she declares, "I want what I want," before following it up with, "do you think that I want too much?" It's a great example of the economy of her lyricism, in which she compacts an entire range of emotions into a succinct turn of phrase.

Nowhere is this conflict between head and heart more clear than on the album's final two tracks, which are among its best. The dark, propulsive “Warm Blood,” produced by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, is about the pleasure that comes with falling hard for someone against your better judgment. The bright “When I Needed You” is the more rational flip side, on which Jepsen realizes she's done changing herself for some guy who was never there for her in the first place.

With “Emotion,” Jepsen has created a cohesive work that is easily the best major label pop release since Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album. The album's sonic touches are in turn experimental and conventional, its lyrical concerns vacillate between confidence and insecurity, but it is always crystal-clear when it comes to the beating heart at its center.

4.5/5 stars

If you like: Taylor Swift, Solange, Brandon Flowers

Tracks: “Run Away With Me,” “Warm Blood,” “When I Needed You”