Pop music is all about desire, but nobody wants like Carly Rae wants. The Canadian singer’s breakaway single, “Call Me Maybe”, scored countless lip-sync videos and ironic-but-not-ironic remixes with its fake strings, sing-along melody, and breathless, gushing vocals. It also articulated a thorn in the side of every lovestruck teenager who’s ever tried to play it cool during that first brush with an all-consuming insta-crush. In “Call Me Maybe”, Jepsen equivocates from the title on down: Call me, but only if you really want to, and by the way I’ve missed you for my entire life up until meeting you just now. No pressure.
At the time, “Call Me Maybe” seemed destined to rank as a one-hit wonder, a fluke out of Canada that just happened to sync up with a bubblegum-shaped hole in the North American consciousness. Emotion, the follow-up to 2012’s Kiss and Jepsen’s third album overall, leans toward a more mature, sophisticated version of her hyperpop while retaining the same endearing saturation of feeling that made “Call Me Maybe” such an enduring hit. Jepsen paradoxically scored some indie cred from the blockbuster track, and brought on co-writers like Dev Hynes, Sia, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, and Tegan and Sara for her next LP. None of that talent goes to waste; Emotion rolls out banger after banger, all while sustaining a remarkable level of complexity and compassion for everyone in Jepsen’s solar system.
From insistent lead single “I Really Like You” to sweeping opener “Run Away with Me”, Jepsen’s still crushing, but her songs push hard away from the cliché of the passive, lovelorn singer. She sings authoritatively; the chorus on “Run Away with Me” is practically an order, as if everything in the world depends on whether she and the object of her affections leave the party together or not. And on “Emotion”, Jepsen all but hexes the guy who’s rejected her, though she phrases it like a love song. “Be tormented by me, babe,” she sings. “In your head, and I won’t stop/ Until you forget me, forget me not.” The words ring vicious in her sweet and pseudo-innocent delivery — she’s under your skin whether you like it or not.
Even at her most pleading, Jepsen tends to spin her demands into a question mark. “I want what I want/ Do you think that I want too much?” she asks on the album’s highlight, “Gimme Love”, another chainsaw of a hook where she repeats the title until it’s impossible to dislodge. It’s one of those songs that sounds like a platonic ideal of pop, something that has always existed but was only just now pulled from the air. Conversely, the cheer-up jam “Making the Most of the Night” sticks out in so many odd places that it finally adds up to a pure, whole, urgent moment. Jepsen crams a glut of syllables into the chorus, jumping all over the key while funk bass and scratched-up synths clash. She takes a melody that shouldn’t work and forces it to work by sheer will, just as she’s singing about kidnapping a loved one from the clutches of their heartbreak and forcing them to see the beauty in the city lights from the car.
The album’s production hits hard but keeps an air of spontaneity; it doesn’t sound slick or choked, and aside from a few moments of gurgled pitch-shifting, it’s not especially tied to any particular era. Most of what plays behind Jepsen’s voice sounds like it could have come out of the same synthesizer, as though she’s over for the afternoon jamming on your couch while venting about her latest crop of boy problems. (“Boy problems? I’ve got ‘em,” she bemoans on “Boy Problems”, just to be sure.) Her producers have funneled the energy of big-budget pop into a space where Jepsen’s personality can breathe. She’s never ironed over by her own songs; all her desperation and yearning and hope come raging through in full color.
Few artists have taken a logarithmic hit like “Call Me Maybe” as a sign to push even further, to make something better, more human, and more electric. But Jepsen is the kind of singer who thrives on the stakes that unapologetic pop music offers. Everything lives or dies on a glance or a kiss; desires grow tall and come crashing down hard. Whether she gets what she wants or she goes home broken, Emotion finds life in the wanting itself.
Essential Tracks: “Run Away With Me”, “Gimme Love”, and “Making the Most of the Night”