8 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: Carly Rae Jepsen's E·MO·TION

A few months ago, I wrote an angry post about how the album review as a literary genre is incapable of talking about pop albums, and how this was reflected in the reception of Carly Rae Jepsen’s E·MO·TION. In compensating for the lack of a single authorial genius to whom all the tracks can be linked, the critic instead demands a larger-than-life diva whose iconic personality is imprinted on every track, making each album a new chapter in a career of mythic proportions. Jepsen was criticised by a few reviewers for failing to provide such a coherent personality. At the time, I critiqued this criticism while acknowledging that the reviewers were simultaneously positioning Jepsen’s very ‘lack of personality’ as a persona in itself: an Everygirl, relatable if a little ‘boring’.

I now believe that this very lack of a single iconic persona is actually fundamental to the success of this particular album. E·MO·TION is a genuine all-killer-no-filler pop record; every song constitutes its own complete little drama. The album is bursting with those tiny moments that are the reason I love pop songs so much: the bridge, chorus or coda that pushes a song from being a statement or slogan to being an event. Artists of a more iconic stature than Jepsen are able to put out whole songs as gestures. These gestures are made meaningful through the combination of the song-as-sign and the artist’s current iconography or mythology as context. Hence, someone like Rihanna or Madonna can include a song of this-or-that style on her album as a statement-in-itself, just like pastiching a certain aesthetic in a video or stage performance. Even Robyn, who similarly lacks the media presence of certain other pop divas, adopts this approach more than Jepsen. Possibly the closest thing to a stylistic ‘costume’ on E·MO·TION is the unmistakably Hynesian ‘All That’, but the breathtaking re-entry of the bass in the final chorus (with its new stepwise motif) easily prevents this track from functioning as an interchangeable genre cipher.

Instead, E·MO·TION pulses with electric dynamics between rich, fascinating production details and surprising vocal gestures. We were introduced to the album through the knowingly absurd ‘really really really really really really’ hook that fills the chorus of ‘I Really Like You’ with an outpouring of big-hearted euphemism. Elsewhere, the title track’s ‘Not a flower on the wall’ bridge has the vocal suddenly strapping itself to the punchy groove and riding it up to the huge chorus, while the strange coo of ‘I would throw in the towel for you, love’ is a clot in the steady flow of the ‘Warm Blood’ chorus, leaving the vocal tripping over the final bar. Most striking is the chorus of ‘Boy Problems’, the breathless, delirious cry of ‘I think I broke up with my boyfriend today and I don’t even care’ which crowns a song that abandons itself the confusion of an unstoppable crisis.

The album is also surprisingly in touch with the helium-tinged art pop of the day. Jepsen has clearly been an influence on PC Music’s A. G. Cook (see previous post), who has remixed earlier singles, and the youthful brightness of her voice is immediately suggestive of that aesthetic. The gushing ‘When I Needed You’ would seem to return the favour, with its shimmering high end and mist-shrouded bass, a texture overstuffed with flying ponies and magic spells, and a perfect shout-along chorus. Indeed, just a couple of tracks earlier, ‘LA Hallucinations’ is built on blocks of looped vocal detritus that sound like they’re straight out of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica. The chorus of this track (my current favourite) is one of several on the album that stick primarily to a single pitch (cf. ‘Let’s Get Lost’, ‘Run Away With Me’): a fairly common but always risky melodic strategy in songwriting, which relies on a good counter-motif or groove to complete the hook. Thankfully, E·MO·TION is loaded with the kind of muscular basslines and popping-candy synths that can rub against a simple melody line in the most suggestive of ways. For me, such moments really bring home the boundless musical and emotional sophistication of pop.