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Review: Carly Rae Jepsen Shrugs Off the Weight of the World on ‘E•MO•TION’

Carly Rae Jepsen on October 3, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
<> on October 3, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: August 19, 2015
Label: Interscope / School Boy

What the f—k does Justin Bieber’s manager know about critical acclaim? “This time we wanted to stop worrying about singles and focus on having a critically acclaimed album,” quoth Scooter Braun to the New York Times on making (well, packaging) Carly Rae Jepsen’s third effort (don’t forget 2008’s Tug of War). Can’t wait for Psy, another Braun client, to release his difficult arthouse record.

Thing is, critics do like singles. We went nuts for the omnipresent “Call Me Maybe” like everyone else, in part because it wasn’t customized to anyone’s specifications. But it’s gross to project innocence onto E•MO•TION or champion her as one’s Normcore Pixie Dream Girl just because her hit was about Normal Human Feelings. We’re having debates about whether Carly Rae Jepsen has enough “personality” or if that’s even the point. (It isn’t.)

What we do know is that too much personality can damage your critical standing: Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP was neither lacking in personality nor possible to project innocence onto. Its busy, Skrillex-like production choked out any room for interpretation in the Gaga discussion, and so the interpreters moved on to, um, a perceived blank space they could write their name in.

Like Swift, whose best record remains the lyrical, un-self-consciously varied Speak Now, Carly was great before us critics noticed. Kiss, the 2012 home of “Call Me Maybe,” is such a bright ball of sunlight that even those engaging with its follow-up on a level where they’re ready to believe in Carly Rae Jepsen, Album Artist have not bothered to defend it. Maybe it was lacking in whatever open sesame that magic producers Ariel Rechtshaid, Dev Hynes, and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij impart to its follow-up; even the name guests on Kiss were Deeply Uncool. But that album wrung excellent work out of Owl City (the quite vapid but incredibly gorgeous “Good Time”) and Justin Bieber (“Beautiful,” which recast One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” on less creepy, more gender-equal terms) and who wants to critically engage with that? There was nothing thinkpiece-ready about the near-klangfarbenmelodie of disco pleasuremobile “This Kiss,” or “Tonight I’m Getting Over You,” the Tinder generation’s “I Will Survive.” They’re just amazing constructions on the grid of the musical notation system.

E•MO•TION is 2015’s Pop Album for Non-Pop People (better luck next time, Jason Derulo), which is why it’s being compared to Swift’s own, twang-free 1989. It’s definitely a bid for the middle while Jepsen’s chartmates Beyoncé and Lady Gaga bleed the edges. Everyone in her crosshairs can agree on the 1980s, a decade we all half-remember thanks to the Killers’ heartland Flock of Seagulls schtick and M83’s aural John Hughes laser shows. Jepsen’s interpretation of the LinnDrum era is more lucid, with “All That” mirroring the slap-bass balladry of Ready for the World’s “Love You Down” and “When I Needed You” pilfering “Hey!“s from Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” So Rechtshaid applies the theoretical hitmaking of HAIM to an actual hitmaker. Oddly (or predictably) enough, all of it evokes pop and very little sounds like a surefire hit.

One exception is the obvious “Call Me Maybe” retread “I Really Like You,” which achieves grandeur over time despite its failure to add a “Hey! I just met you” or “I said hey what’s up, hello” to the pop Bartlett’s canon. Lightning rarely strikes twice the same way, so we’re better off with the opening “Run Away With Me,” with its signature sax-cum-shofar bleat that more signals a throng of wildebeests diving off a cliff than a plea of devotion.

Intimacy is a funny thing with this record because despite the fact that Jepsen writes almost exclusively songs about love or infatuation, it’s hard to imagine E•MO•TION as an indoor pleasure. This is music for flash mobs, a valentine to crowdsourcing, and a public engagement proposal to the universe. When she implores us to imagine “all that we could do with this emotion,” it conjures up Aladdin bulls—ting his way through “A Whole New World.” For Jepsen, a crush in itself is escapism; if you want to get dark you could argue that the total absence of negative space on her records is an implicit admission that love is all downhill from there.

But as a tune, “Emotion” isn’t as rich as HAIM’s “Falling,” which shares its Rechtshaidian riddim. Better off is “L.A. Hallucinations,” which sounds and reads like nothing else here; think Purity Ring covering Ace of Base and throw in a brilliant lyric flipping off “Buzzfeed buzzards and TMZ crows” that never could’ve appeared on Kiss. Icon-whisperer Sia helps Jepsen admit she’s got worse things to deal with than a breakup on “Boy Problems.” But is that really impressive for the pop history books or just this paragon of good intentions?

The fantastic title “Making the Most of the Night” is attached to the album’s only prominent minor chord change, making it another obvious standout, though the words barely squeeze into the Gloria Estefan-inspired rhythm and still make sense (“Here I’ve come to hijack you / Hijack you / I love you while / Making the most of the night”). “Gimmie Love” also rounds transcendence, with a subterranean beat and melodic contours that Swift herself failed to explore on 1989, and that’s where Jepsen shines. But FOR•MAL•ISM doesn’t sell.

E•MO•TION is a better record than we deserve from a pop adept awkwardly saddled with expectations of “critical acclaim.” But Jepsen is neither pop’s savior nor its tabula rasa du jour. Her really great album was 2012, her quest to be artistically respected as a woman tagged with the scarlet letter of No Personality eternal. She didn’t just focus on music, she’s given the vultures nothing else to work with. So she’s a heroine for anyone whose nose for respectability politics subjugates their ear for a risk, a loose thoughtcrime, a stray embarrassment. Don’t let anyone tell you vanilla doesn’t still taste good, though.