Review Summary: “EMOTION” is a full-blown 80’s pastiche that proves Jepsen’s masterful ability to channel her influences.
In March of this year, Carly Rae Jepsen fell into a predictable rut. With its gratingly repetitive hook, lead single “I Really Like You” seemed a too-obvious calculated effort to recreate her previous viral success. The reason was clear: while “Call Me Maybe” was a simple, but effective earworm, “I Really Like You” aimed to stick in your head in all of the worst ways possible. Audiences weren’t buying the overstuffed, tedious chorus either. The song peaked at a modest #39 on the Billboard Hot 100, Tom Hanks music video and all.
The entire month seemed odd for someone as self-aware as Jepsen. After all, she was the type of artist that admitted to her previous album being a rushed effort, and making a career out of a third place finish on Canadian Idol takes someone who has a strong pop instinct. Additionally, she claimed to have wrote an astonishing 250 songs for “EMOTION.”
Something just wasn’t clicking.
A moment of clarity came with the release of promotional single “All That.” The Dev Hynes treatment was an unpredictable, but fantastic look on Jepsen. If “All That” were released in the 1980’s, it would have been a staple slow song at proms, homecomings, and weddings, with its calming synths and vague love metaphors (“I will be your candle in the dark”). The song shifted expectations for “EMOTION.” Perhaps a reinvention was on the horizon?
The predictions have proven correct. “EMOTION” is a full-blown 80’s pastiche that proves Jepsen’s masterful ability to channel her influences. Opener “Run Away With Me” is an immediate contender for the year’s best pop single, setting the tone for the album by employing a smooth saxophone line that complements the stilted chorus. “LA Hallucinations” might seem like a cliched recipe for disaster, but instead reveals a darkness to Jepsen, who opens up about a relationship deteriorating through the pressures of fame, and her alcohol-laden coping strategy (“You pour and I’ll say stop”).
It’s certainly an oddity in the context of the album, but proves that track listing is a strength on “EMOTION.” It would be easy for Jepsen to pump out 45 minutes of unoriginal pop, but Jepsen is conscious enough to throw in some songs that add nuance to the album. Just look at “Warm Blood,” produced by Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend. There’s momentum in the song that keeps form with the rest of the album, but the track is a refreshing change of pace with the quiet, pulsating production. Jepsen’s voice, an admittedly limited instrument, shines in the gentle atmosphere created, and creates a perfect window of opportunity for the closing track “When I Needed You” - a dramatic song which could be appropriately played during the ending credits for a rom-com, and would feel excessive if it weren’t for its predecessor. It’s a show-stopping finale for Jepsen’s strongest album yet, complete with a classic 80’s fade-out.
Even “I Really Like You” makes a bit of sense in the context of the album. The verses create a romantic atmosphere as powerful as the one in Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” and the song is forgivable after realizing that Jepsen did what Taylor Swift did for "1989:" she lured fans in with singles that resembled her previous work before revealing a completely different album.
The primary issue of this album is also its biggest strength. All greatness aside, Jepsen has evolved into a student of the 80’s. Granted, she is a fantastic student, but “EMOTION”’s very singular tone can sometimes come across as faceless, similar to the unsustainable “costume” that Meghan Trainor has made her niche. Yes, Jepsen has created three very different albums that are all strong in their own ways, but she has a tendency to rely on musical elements that hinder a shape of identity in her music. Sia-penned “Boy Problems” is the prime example. The funk guitar element of the song has saturated the mainstream music market for a couple of years now, and Jepsen makes no strong statement with her contribution. Similarly, “All That” could definitely have been sung by Solange if her and Hynes were still comrades. The empty lyrical content is a double-edged sword. It improves her emulation of her 80’s idols, but there isn’t much to help answer the question “Who is Carly Rae Jepsen?”
As an album, “EMOTION” is a near-perfect set of 80’s music that shows Jepsen as an extremely smart pop artist. However, the whole LP plays with the unshakeable undercurrent of her untouched potential as an artist with personality. Perhaps that is too much to ask - Jason Derulo and Ariana Grande have made extraordinary careers off of unclear identities. However, there’s something about songs like “LA Hallucinations,” the subtle idiosyncrasies in her voice, and her interview personality that reveal that Jepsen would make one hell of a self-titled personal album, especially when listening to songs that sound just a little too perfect.