Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘E·MO·TION’: Album Review

It’s easy to forget that when Carly Rae Jepsen‘s “Call Me Maybe” took over the world in 2012, dropping a good seven months before her sophomore album Kiss, she was already 26 years old. She was a generation removed from her benefactor and labelmate Justin Bieber, who was 18 when he lip synced “Call Me Maybe” with friends in that famous home video. In pop music’s distorted age terms, it was an unlikely success story for a relatively seasoned singer-songwriter who had already endured making it to the top three on Canadian Idol and releasing a strong debut LP that no one heard.

After the dust settled around the success of “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen moved away from the spotlight (as many who pegged her as a one-hit wonder expected), eventually realizing she was pretty disgusted with pop music as a whole. She reevaluated the music she wanted to make, looking to the retro ’80s pop of icons like Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and Prince, and imbuing it with the modern sensibilities of criminally underrated non-American dance acts like Robyn, Dragonette, and La Roux. And while these influences aren’t worlds away from the MIDI-strings and sing-songy nature of “Call Me Maybe,” each of those artists never pandered to children. Jepsen was striving to make music as someone who’s almost 30, not a 29-year-old playing a teenager. Now, after a three-year writing process spanning something like 17 different recording studios in Sweden, Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and Vancouver, and collaborating with almost as many producers, Jepsen arrives with her third album, E·MO·TION (out ). And it’s nothing less than a pop music nerd masterpiece. The album feels fussed over, finely tuned and repeatedly tweaked, with Jepsen doing to ’80s synth pop what Daft Punk did with disco on Random Access Memories: taking it seriously.

From the opening moments of the album’s first track, “Run Away With Me,” Jepsen is breathlessly keeping pace with a pulsing drum machine, colored in with clouds of synths, eventually working to a gorgeously constructed bridge and chorus. The whole track both feels like it could easily slide into the rotation of a Top 40 station right now and like it’s from an older time and place that doesn’t get as recognized as it should among pop artists these days. Much has been made of the indie-leaning collaborators Jepsen worked with on the album, including Ariel Rechtshaid, Dev Hynes, and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, but it’s telling that she also got a producer like Shellback, who wrote and produced most of Taylor Swift’s 1989, to basically turn back the clock on “Run Away With Me,” to use his pop instincts and create a sound that’s both timeless and refreshing.

Jepsen achieves the same feeling on probably the album’s best-known single, “I Really Like You,” which was co-written and produced by Top 40 veterans Jacob Kasher and Peter Svensson. The song itself feels modern, but has handfuls of classic pop production flourishes, like the little echoing vocal sample that pops up or the hi-hat splash in the beat, that provide texture and atmosphere in unexpected ways. It’s earwormy, but it’s not disposable even though it pretends to be. “I Really Like You” leaves a colorful mark in ways most contemporary pop music doesn’t. It’s a trick that Jepsen deploys again and again on the record, especially on tracks like the art house slow jam “All That” produced by Rechtshaid and Hynes, the glitchy oddity “L.A. Hallucinations” and the very Vampire Weekend-y “Warm Blood,” which was Batmanglij’s lone contribution to the album. Even a track that aimed at adolescent innocence, “Boy Problems,” twangs and bounces with shimmery funk bass lines and Nile Rodgers-style guitar licks.

For anyone with a passing interest in the deep recesses of synth pop in all its forms and traditions, E·MO·TION is treasure trove. Jepsen has worked her ass off to create an album that is both effervescent and light, but eminently re-listenable, offering a deceptively dense collection of tracks that will please pop music fetishists and the masses in equal measure.

Idolator Score: 4/5

Patrick Bowman