Unanimously adored by critics and consumers alike, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was a come-on song for the ages, done up in ebullient strings and deft guitar figures that capture the bottled-up optimism and anxious anticipation of a youthful crush. In fact, perhaps the crush seemed too youthful, as many felt that Jepsen was pandering to the Disney Channel crowd with calculated bubblegum pop. Sharing an agent with Justin Bieber didn’t help her cause.
But after word broke that Jepsen’s follow-up, Emotion, would feature co-writes from hipster hitmakers (Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, and Sia Furler) and respected super-producers (Ariel Rechtshaid and Shellback, among others), it became evident that Jepsen, to quote her agent in a recent New York Times piece, “wanted to stop worrying about singles and focus on having a critically acclaimed album.”
Emotion is further proof that Jepsen is capable of translating broadly understood emotions and experiences into unshakable earworms. The M83-indebted “Run Away with Me” announces the album with a heavily reverberated sax overture, setting the album’s sonic agenda: ’80s-style bombast, liberal vocal multi-tracking, and busy arrangements that pair rubbery, percussive synths with enveloping, formless pedal tones. “LA Hallucinations” marries mall-pop and cloud-rap, with a jerky call-and-response keyboard figure that gives way to Jepsen’s oblique references to finding oblivion in intoxication: “There’s a little black hole in my golden cup/So you pour and I’ll say stop.” The hook’s ability to cut through the glitching, faded instrumentation almost makes up for the questionably dorky breakdown that name-checks Buzzfeed and TMZ.
Those who have criticized the maturity of Jepsen’s lyrics aren’t going to be swayed by an album that mostly juggles songs about crushes, breakups, and fatuous love. But while she isn’t writing a three-disc opera about her struggle with bi-polar disorder or a warts-and-all character study about a lightly fictionalized alter-ego, Jepsen matches every moment of naïveté with stray observations that introduce new folds into pop clichés, exhibiting a touching empathy for her songs’ subjects. “Boy Problems,” what could have been a childish disco kiss-off, becomes a relationship reality check from an impatient friend, propelled by a slinky bassline and funky guitar rhythms. The album’s lyrics never approach literary, and there are a few clunkers (the mindless pleasures of “I Really Like You” make its clumsy similes go down that much easier), but Jepsen’s everywoman charm makes for songs that will be relatable to kids and discerning music nerds alike. After all, pop music has always been, at its heart, music for teens, and there’s no shame in an artist courting such a reliable demographic.
Whether she’s coyly whispering over the icy, deep-house synths and pitched-down vocal samples of “Warm Blood” or invoking ’90s R&B slow jams on “All That,” Jepsen’s no-frills delivery and penchant for multitracked harmonies lends her an inscrutability that most other pop acts would consider a death sentence. Unlike brand-savvy superstars like Taylor Swift and Rihanna, her strength lies not in domineering a song with her unmistakable persona, but in letting the compositions dictate her delivery. With an uncanny melodic gift that enlivens even the most tired sentiments and a chameleonic ability to seamlessly transition between disparate production styles, Jepsen proves she’s worthy of those comparisons. Rihanna and Swift can have their Instagram fame and paparazzi; Jepsen works best just out of the spotlight, doing her part to keep the teenage dream alive.