Aaron Butterfield reviews Carly Rae Jepsen’s latest slice of pop perfection.
The contradiction of Carly Rae Jepsen.
Carly Rae Jepsen is a unique pop phenomenon. A runner up on Canadian Idol, Jepsen’s career has hardly been the smooth path to superstardom that so many of her contemporaries can boast. Indeed, even after the release of 2012’s “Call Me Maybe”, there were few people who could have predicted the infectious reality TV contestant would be anything more than a one hit wonder, despite having her very listenable second album, ‘Kiss’, tucked under her arm.
Then came ‘Emotion’.
What many expected to be a rehash of the ‘90s-lite, substance-free sound that had propelled her into infamy, actually proved to be one of the best albums of 2015. It’s ‘80s brilliance was lauded by critics and fans alike, and in comparison to releases from the likes of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, Jepsen breathed a much needed burst of fun back into last year’s pop scene.
It also sold less than 200,000 copies worldwide and failed to crack the top 10 in any major music market apart from Japan.
The link between good music and decent sales is all too often non-existent, but there was an almost universal feeling among dedicated pop music fans that the general public had done Jepsen particularly dirty by refusing to acknowledge the excellence of ‘Emotion’. To our delight, though, CRJ has chosen not to run from the album (as many pop stars would when faced with a commercial fiasco on this scale) but rather to celebrate its one year anniversary with eight previously unreleased tracks from her initial recording sessions. Could ‘Emotion: Side B’ possibly live up to its predecessor?
Yes, and immaculately so.
At it’s core, ‘Emotion: Side B’ is an EP best reviewed independently from its parent album, despite the sonic and thematic characteristics that it shares with 2015’s release. There’s an undeniable feeling that all of the songs are chosen for a reason, and so the EP works as a complete package as well as a collection of forgotten tracks. As with all good ‘10s pop, ‘Side B’ features a lavish amount of retro-nostalgia, whilst still sounding decidedly current, a feat perhaps best accredited to the fantastic collection of producers that Carly swept in for both parts of the record.
Opening track “First Time” is one of the best examples of Jepsen’s ability to pair an upbeat instrumental and melody with fundamentally heartbreaking lyrics. Carly eschews the over-used conversational style of songwriting which plagues the airwaves at the moment, favouring large, universal concepts which, at the end of the day, are far more relatable. Similarly, the TMS produced “Body Language”, featuring lyrics laden with desperation, is a song about needing someone to stay but set against a backdrop of ‘80s magic. Neither song would sound out of place on Whitney Houston’s ‘Whitney’ or Madonna’s ‘True Blue’, but both are intrinsically CRJ tracks.
On standout song “Store”, Jepsen utilises her talent for quirky imagery, suggesting that rather than deal with the dissolution of a relationship, “just lying” is preferable and advocates telling your significant other that you’re “just going to the store”. Capturing the pain of having to end a love affair with a song about grocery shopping is no mean feat but Carly pulls it off marvelously, and the juxtaposition of the wistful verses against the peppy chorus is a particularly brilliant sleight of hand.
Despite all the tracks being cut from the same cloth musically, the record doesn’t feel especially repetitive. At times, the songs do seem to run into each other – the pay off for a sonically cohesive record – but that means when there’s an absence of the “Call Me Maybe” star’s signature lyrical style, there are forgettable (although not enjoyable) moments on the record. With “Higher”, the only track not written by Jepsen, her absence is keenly felt and it’s the weakest moment of the EP purely because it lacks her input.
When Carly is most present, the songs become concerned with fear. On “The One”, the singer-songwriter rejects the concept of one true love (a surprisingly refreshing position in current pop music) and the repetition of “don’t fall in love” during the middle-8 is uncomfortably poignant. Similarly, “Fever” is a song that has terror at its core, although this time about being heartbroken, and even though the track is more understated than the rest of the EP, it packs a punch simply by being so upfront about fear – and, of course, for lyrics like “so I stole your bike / and rode all night”.
Undeniably the strongest moment of the album is the soaring “Cry”. Of any track on ‘Emotion: Side B’, “Cry” sounds the most radio ready, and is a career highlight for Jepsen. Another melancholy track, the song is arguably the darkest corner of ‘Side B’, lamenting a lover that won’t spend the night. The warm bassline sits incongruously against the bright but icy synths and when paired with the rousing “wake up without you” bridge, the song moves from greatness into brilliance. The tragic thing is that in the hands of any other artist, “Cry” could be a torch song in the making, but it feels like Carly has been irrevocably tarred with the one-hit-wonder brush.
The album closes with “Roses” – a song about deciding not to rekindle a relationship – and it’s the EP’s most painful instance, featuring some of its best lyricism – “I can feel you reaching through the cracks / A simple change of season and you’re back”. Carly’s quivering vocal against the shuddering instrumental is ultra-effective and it’s not only the perfect way to finish the album and the ‘Emotion’ era, but a magical way to finish your summer.
‘Emotion: Side B’ not only proves Carly Rae Jepsen to be one of the finest pop acts on the market, but reinstates the quality of last year’s ‘Emotion’: who else can boast a record on which even the rejected tracks are better than 90% of the current pop landscape? Jepsen may be set to join the ranks of Robyn, Marina & the Diamonds and Lana Del Rey as female pop acts who don’t concern themselves with commercial or mainstream success, but she goes out with a bang – reminding the public exactly what they lost when they chose not to make her as renowned as Taylor Swift.
Hit: “Cry”, “Store” and “Roses”