Review Summary: Romance is fine / Pour me some wine
Man, how did Carly Rae Jepsen do it? If you’d asked a music fanatic a few short years ago what they thought of the Queen of Sitting, ninety percent of them likely would have laughed in your face. The internet’s opinion about-faced at astronomical speed as Emotion
started leaking towards the west after its initial Japanese release. I can’t remember any pop star’s shift in appraisal being remotely as radical - Justin Bieber’s reinvention on Purpose
comes close, and Demi Lovato’s reconstruction on “Cool For The Summer” is in the same ballpark, but neither of them have achieved the ludicrous amount of respect Jepsen in just two or three months last year. On this website, her two major-label LPs both have staff reviews. The thread for 2012’s Kiss
is accompanied by a paltry twenty-seven comments; that of Emotion
boasts nearly twelve hundred at the time of writing.
As with any cultural touchstone whose main audience is millennials on the internet (myself, of course, included), Carly Rae’s rapid ascent has begotten thinkpiece upon critical reflection upon personal essay from hordes of music writers everywhere. New Yorker staffer Carrie Battan last year described Jepsen as one of a cohort of “mindie” artists, ascribing her success to an ability to walk a line between major-label heft and indie cred. Former Jezebel deputy editor Jia Tolentino (a usually excellent writer whose review of Emotion
for The Awl, linked below, nevertheless remains the single worst piece of music criticism I have ever read) crystallized the sentiment of thousands of CRJ’s queer fans when she positioned “Boy Problems,” incidentally the best song on Emotion
, as a “beautiful gay song of discovery.” (Cartoonist Kate Leth has posited that Jepsen’s somewhat astonishing popularity among queer music fans stems in part from “all her songs [being] about confusing friendships and relationships,” the most astute analysis of the situation I’ve seen.)
In other words, then, Emotion
- and now Emotion Side B
- succeed in large part because they capture the lightning-in-a-bottle of the *clears throat* millennial experience
, which is to say that both releases are deeply messy affairs of love and ennui told plainly over incredible pop music. Side B
, in this respect, is an expected continuation of the deceptive complexity of the main album, pop music general enough to embody the feelings and memories of so many but with enough specificity to do it with a bite that other contemporary songs about love and sadness are lacking. It uniquely among comparable pop albums gets romance as it happens among its target audience, and that is a major reason for its unexpected popularity.
Part of what gives Jepsen’s lyricism its heft is the music itself, bar none the best pop production I’ve heard in the past few years. Side B
is a sumptuous collection of upbeat bangers and moodier fare, everything tinted with just the right amount of nostalgic positivity. “Body Language,” far and away the best track here, throws an ‘80s workout beat behind torpedoing synths and nasally bass, an inordinately enthusiastic instrumental track which shines a strange light on the song’s lyrical content (more on that in a second). “Roses” is the opposite: wispy chords lie on top of an R&B framework like a thin layer of dust until the strings and thunderous snares of the chorus blow everything wide open.
The relentlessly starry-eyed music makes Jepsen’s lyricism that much odder. Take “Body Language,” a last-ditch attempt to kindle romance in a love interest who thinks of the narrator as a “friend” through the power of “body language” (which means exactly what you think it means). Or “First Time,” on which the most bubblegummy of instrumentals accompanies a miserable Jepsen pleading with an ex-lover to rediscover the magic they once had. Or the bouncy synthwave-lite of “The One,” best summarized by the following from the first verse: “We should know better / This can't last forever / Kiss me one more time” and whose bridge repeats the words “don’t fall in love” over and over, Jepsen trying to convince herself the relationship isn’t right.
Basically, everything on Side B
is weirdly disconnected and confusing and impossible to properly understand, which is exactly what makes Jepsen’s music so powerful. Her target audience is stumbling through life and love, largely unsure of what makes for a spiritually satisfying relationship but blindly clawing at anything we can get our grubby hands on, hoping that the next thing is the one. And this kind of romantic bewilderment is nothing new, but Carly Rae captures the glitz and glamour and grime and sex and directionless sadness and anxiety of her listeners so, so well, and the way it’s wrapped up in an endlessly compelling composition of synth jams, funk accessories, and modern electro-pop makes it even better. Love is frustratingly complicated and often hopelessly miserable, but the slight nuggets of joy hidden in every awkward transition from friend to lover and back again make the whole ordeal worthwhile - and it’s nice to hear Jepsen confirm that.