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‘E·MO·TION': Carly Rae Jepsen Runs Away With The Pop Record Of The Year, No ‘Maybe’ About It

Carly Rae Jepsen
Interscope Records

Until this year, Carly Rae Jepsen‘s name was all but a punchline.

Blame radio for over-saturating the airwaves with her flirty, string-filled smash “Call Me Maybe” in 2012, despite the arsenal of equally good (and better) material waiting to be discovered on the rest of her record. Blame the Internet for squeezing the remaining life out of the tune with parody videos and memes galore.

But don’t blame Carly herself for being miscast by the public as a one-hit wonder, considered a brief blip on pop radio and nothing more.

The truth is that Carly Rae Jepsen has always been excellent, regardless of who’s been paying attention: The album that bore her inescapable smash, Kiss, is almost notoriously underrated (if such a thing is possible), packed with sparkling electro-pop gems with all the effervescence of a J-pop record, featuring contributions from some of the industry’s finest songwriters. (The failure of the Max Martin-produced “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” to even make a dent in the Top 40 is just one of the many injustices of the CRJ catalog.)

But even before stepping in for sessions with Sweden’s finest, Carly had already proven herself to be a capable songwriter. In 2008, following her run as a finalist on Canadian Idol, Carly released her debut LP Tug Of War in Canada, a breezy collection of folk-tinged, guitar-led pop records written and composed entirely by Jepsen herself and producer Ryan Stewart. Even then, with songs like title track “Tug Of War,” “Bucket” and “Sour Candy,” her ear for melody was apparent.

Three years and over 250 songs (!) written after the reign of the-song-that-shall-not-be-named, Carly has returned, revitalized and inspired, with a bolder, more sophisticated sound in E·MO·TION (out today, August 21), her best work yet and, at least for now, the greatest pop record of the year — no “maybe” about it.

Carly Rae Jepsen
Interscope Records

Inspired while standing sidestage during Cyndi Lauper‘s set at the 2013 Supersonic Festival in Japan, Carly went to work on an ’80s-leaning pop record two years ago.

“These melodies, her voice, the way it cut through all of the pop of today in my head, I was like, ‘I need to latch onto this, there’s something here that needs to come back in a big way’,” she explained to back in April.

To achieve that nostalgic sound, Jepsen recorded with a wealth of collaborators hailing from very different spaces in music: from Swedish super-producers to like Shellback and Mattman & Robin to fuzz-pop dream pairing Ariel Rechtshaid and Dev Hynes to pop’s premiere penner Sia to Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij.

And while the several dozen acts listed in the liner notes could have easily lent to an eclectic set, E·MO·TION is almost flawless in its cohesion, capturing the glee of “Dress You Up”-era Madonna, the bedroom-ready funk of Prince and, of course, Cyndi — all while sounding much more true to the era than a certain other insanely popular, “’80s-inspired” record. Ahem.

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Unfortunately, there were early bumps in the E·MO·TION campaign.

In March, lead single “I Really Like You” kicked off Carly’s grand reintroduction. And, as huge and hook-heavy as it is, the really, really repetitive tune still felt a little too much like an attempt to recreate the magic of her flirty mega-hit rather than an evolution. (Yes, even with that Tom Hanks cameo in the video.) In comparison to the rest of the LP, it’s one of the least compelling offerings and, if anything, serves best as an “inbetwingle,” bridging the sound of “Call Me Maybe” to the Carly of 2015.

It didn’t help, either, that E·MO·TION was inexplicably released in Japan a full two months (!) earlier than its North American release. For anyone who wanted to hear the record, they could, and did. (And if you think that’s bad, the record’s not even out in Europe until late September.)

No matter, though, because Carly had something hiding up her multicolored sleeves to distract us for the summer.

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With an almighty sax blast — as if to scare away the mediocre sounds inexplicably polluting the airwaves — “Run Away With Me” came blaring from the speakers in July. Carly 2.0 had officially arrived.

Ever the romantic, our “sinner in secret” (oh, do behave, Carly) grabbed our hand and took us on a spontaneous joyride through the city streets at night. Every single minute of the song — from the anxious pacing of the verses to that utter explosion of a chorus, complete with Charli XCX-like rebel chants for good measure (AY!) — makes “Run Away With Me” the unsung Song Of Summer 2015, and a worthy successor to Katy Perry‘s own nostalgia-inducing opus, “Teenage Dream.” It is immense.

“Run Away With Me” isn’t the only time Carly has us riding shotgun for a midnight joyride on E·MO·TION: Songs like the smooth, sax-inflected “Let’s Get Lost” and the Sia-penned “Making The Most Of The Night” also play to Carly’s penchant for an us-against-the-world type of love affair. “Let’s get lost. You wanna get lost?” she seductively whispers. It’s a difficult proposition to reject. When the music sounds good, who would say no?

She does one better with Sia on the irresponsibly catchy, all-too-relatable “Boy Problems,” a deliriously bubbly, Greg Kurstin-produced ode to ditching her dude with the help of her girlfriend’s advice over the phone. (And really, haven’t we all been on both ends of that call?) “I think I broke up with my boyfriend today and I…don’t really care! I’ve got worse problems,” the ever-optimistic crooner declares. It sounds like a stone-cold classic from the first play — just one of the many “How is this not already a smash?” moments on the LP.

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Although E·MO·TION is a nod to the past, Carly’s ear for modern pop is spot-on: She loves Solange‘s “Losing You” and Sky Ferreira‘s “You’re Not The One,” which is what inspired her to request studio time with Ariel Rechtshaid and Dev Hynes, who was impressed by her ability despite his initial skepticism. “I didn’t know how involved she was with things,” he told the New York Times.

The end result was “All That,” a song that oozes the same hazy warmth of Dev’s own work as Blood Orange. The song softly, sensually sways back and forth, perfectly suited for that first, awkward slow dance at prom — Class of 1985, that is. “I’ll be your lighthouse when you’re lost at sea/I’ll keep my light on, baby/You can always come to me,” she sweetly promises, like a modern spin on Prince-meets-Madonna’s “Crazy For You.”

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The most left-of-center serving of the entire record, however, is “Warm Blood,” a wondrously bizarre collaboration with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam — and also Carly’s favorite cut. It’s a song as romantic as it is unsettling, filled with strange layers of production (is that a helicopter blade dully rotating in the background?), odd noises and breathy cooing about blood, caverns of secrets and allusions to submission — sort of like Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever” as reinterpreted for the soundtrack of 50 Shades of Grey.

Carly’s no tabloid fixture, but she’s still a superstar. And while her records are largely the stuff of intimate love affairs and broken hearts, she tackles the darker side of fame that comes with the gig for the first time with the springy “LA Hallucinations,” a bittersweet electro-pop ode to celebrity. “I remember being naked/We were young freaks just fresh to L.A/Never cared about the fake kids, we would write and sing and wear whatever,” she laments of a love affair lost in the blur of shopping sprees and jets. She even gets in her first shots at the media: “Buzzfeed buzzards and TMZ crows/What can I say that you don’t already know?” It’s her “Rumors” moment, basically.

And while Carly’s catalog is largely dominated by her hopeful swooning, it’s the unrequited love — the boys who won’t call her back maybe, if you will — that reveals a deeper layer to the singer. “I’m not the type of girl for you/I’m not going to pretend that I’m the type of girl you’d call more than a friend,” she aches on the agonizing and brilliant “Your Type,” co-produced by One Direction hit-makers Carl Falk and Rami Yacoub.

The bonus tracks tacked onto various international, deluxe and Target editions are worth acquiring, including “Love Again” and the unbelievably chilling “Never Get To Hold You,” a lush synth-pop heartbreaker in the same vein as Ariana Grande‘s “Love Me Harder” that might very well go down as one of the greatest songs of her career.

There might even be some hints of new territory to tackle: “I Didn’t Just Come Here To Dance,” Carly’s first foray into ’90s House, is an unbelievably fierce (and forward) dance floor come-on. “I didn’t just come here to dance…if you know what I mean! Do you know what I mean?” she suggestively declares above a four-to-the-floor pulse before diving headfirst into a nasty, vogue-ready beat drop. Sure, the pop thing is panning out pretty well, but if Carly ever wanted to try out dance floor divadom on the next LP, this is the song to prove that the transition is very, very possible…and highly encouraged.

Carly Rae Jepsen
Interscope Records

Carly is a masterclass pop swooner, and the giddy girl behind Kiss‘ “Curiosity” is the very same one frolicking through songs like “I Really Like You,” “Gimmie Love” and album’s devious daydream of a title track. Playing hard to get? Carly sees your challenge — and she’s happy to accept. “In your fantasy, dream about me…and all that we can do with this emotion!” she nudges. Restraint? Eh, not her strong suit, which is probably why the example sentence used to define the word “Emotion” on the cover of her LP reads: “She was attempting to control her emotions.”

But then, Carly Rae Jepsen’s strength has always been exactly that: Earnest emotion, which is why — more than any other record released in 2015 — E·MO·TION delivers on the promise of pure pop with an edge of sophistication and indie sensibility without pretension, hashtag-heavy trend-hopping or eye-rolling ‘ironic’ pop. And on an album that could have easily turned into a last-ditch attempt to make music that connects to the nae nae-ing youth, Carly only, impressively, stayed tuned in to her own frequency.

At this point, it doesn’t matter if out-of-touch radio DJs really, really like Carly Rae Jepsen beyond one runaway hit. She’s too busy driving fast into the night in her own lane.

Carly Rae Jepsen

Next: 'Breathe In. Breathe Out.: The Resuscitation of Hilary Duff

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