Carly Rae Jepsen placed third on Canadian Idol in 2007, performing songs by Janis Ian and Rickie Lee Jones. She made a likeable coffee-shop pop album in 2008, which was released only in Canada and which featured a cover of John Denver’s ‘Sunshine on my Shoulders’. Jepsen wrote a folk song named ‘Call Me Maybe’ for a followup but producer Josh Ramsay transformed it into a pop song, with a memorable synthetic string part. With patronage from Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, the song was a worldwide number one, spotlighting Jepsen’s bubblegum pop sound and girl next door image.
Jepsen’s story was very conventional so far for a 21st century pop star – a Canadian Idol appearance, a celebrity Tweet endorsement, and a serviceable album backing up a great single. But Jepsen’s story gets more interesting with the release of 2015’s Emotion. The first single from the album, ‘I Really Like You’, was a conservative choice, a song that was too close to the ‘Call Me Maybe’ template and which failed to match her previous record’s success.
But at the same time that Jepsen lost traction as a pop star, Emotion gained her acclaim among critics and music geeks, revelling in an album full of delightful pop songs. Jepsen followed up Emotion in 2016 with Emotion: Side B, an EP of outtakes which matched the parent’s album excellence.
Carly Rae Jepsen Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Emotion
Overlooked Gem: Emotion: Side B
Tug Of War
Carly Rae Jepsen recorded her debut album on the back of her third place on season 5 of Canadian Idol; the album features ‘Sweet Talker’, the self-penned song that she performed at her Idol audition. Tug of War is a false start in Jepsen’s discography – while it was regionally successful, it’s different from her later, pop-oriented albums, with a folk derived sound. Acoustic guitar is prominent, along with polite dance beats, and its reminiscent of 1990s Lilith Fair records like Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily. It’s a smooth, tuneful record that would sound great on a Starbucks playlist, and Jepsen’s voice prettily floats over the gentle sound.
Jepsen came from a folk background – she cites Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison as influences – so the pretty cover of John Denver’s ‘Sunshine On My Shoulders’ makes sense. Opener ‘Bucket’ has a reggae feel, and its melody threatens to open out into Neil Diamond’s ‘Red Red Wine’. Fan favourite ‘Hotel Shampoos’ pushes into country territory, but one of my favourites is the smooth ‘Money and the Ego’. Lyrically, Tug of War is sometimes in confessional singer-songwriter mode, with songs like ‘Tell Me’ and ‘Sweet Talker’.
Jepsen always planned to become a folk singer – it was only when ‘Call Me Maybe’ became a surprise hit in 2011, that she transformed into a pop star. It’s difficult to enjoy Tug of War over her masterful pop recordings – it’s a pretty, but generic, debut that now seems like a footnote in her discography.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s international debut was quickly pieced together to capitalise on the unexpected success of ‘Call Me Maybe’. Most of these songs follow the ‘Call Me Maybe’ template – synth riffs and danceable beats, backing up Jepsen’s songs of infatuation and longing. While with the benefit of hindsight, given the brilliance of her following record, it’s possible to see signs of a strong songwriter, generally Kiss feels like product, particularly the two duets, lacking the sonic depth of Emotion. There are predictable songs like ‘Hurt So Good’, where you can tell where the song’s going from the first few seconds.
‘Call Me Maybe’ is the obvious standout here, its synth string stabs and Jepsen’s perfectly guileless lyrics fitting together seamlessly. ‘Turn Me Up’ is more subtle and sexy, with the synths sounding like a heavily reverbed Fender Rhodes, and it’s probably the closest to her work on Emotion. ‘Tonight I’m Getting Over You’ has a strong verse melody that’s another sign of a burgeoning songwriting talent, while ‘Drive’ is a strong outtake featured on the deluxe version. The album’s two duets are problematic – the acoustic duet with Justin Bieber is just about tolerable, but the duet with Owl City on ‘Good Time’ feels like Jepsen is unevenly yoked with a lesser talent.
Kiss is a serviceable effort from Jepsen, but ‘Call Me Maybe’ is easily the strongest song here and it’s not as carefully crafted as her later work.
Jepsen only had a couple of months to work on Kiss,as it was released to capitalise on the success of ‘Call Me Maybe’, and when she returned to the studio she aimed to create a more mature album. Before her followup she took time off to play Cinderella on Broadway, and scrapped an indie folk album she’d been working on. In the lead up to recording Emotion, Jepsen had been listening to 1980s music like Cyndi Lauper, Prince, and Madonna. The resulting album has roots in larger than life, dramatic 1980s synth pop, presented with alternative production. The album effectively changed her target market – the first single ‘I Really Like You’ was a timid choice that seemed too much of a retread if ‘Call Me Maybe’, but the album was acclaimed as a pop masterpiece and attracted a more mature audience than the teen drama of Kiss. Amazingly, for such a pop-centric album, the momentum barely flags over the twelve tracks, consistently delivering pop hooks.
Opener ‘Run Away With Me’ is the most acclaimed track, and sets the tone immediately with its dramatic saxophone introduction. ‘All That’ is a 1980s style slow jam complete with slap bass, while ‘LA Hallucinations’ is trippy. But at the core of the album are the upbeat, hook-filled pieces that Jepsen’s seemingly tossing out at will – the disco flavoured ‘Boy Problems’ with its perfect introduction, the sweetly pretty ‘Let’s Get Lost’, and the closing kiss off of ‘When I Needed You’. The deluxe edition of the album adds five more tracks, of which ‘Favourite Colour’ is pretty and heartfelt.
It’s not necessarily original, but Emotion is such a consistently excellent set of songs that its quality is undeniable.
Emotion: Side B
Jepsen reportedly wrote 250 songs for Emotion, and on the album’s first anniversary she released eight further tracks from the project as a stand-alone EP. As you’d expect it’s in the same vein as the parent album, but a little more relaxed; there’s nothing contrived like ‘I Really Like You’, just more well-written pop songs.
My favourite is the dramatic ‘Fever’, with its soaring pre-chorus and driving chorus, while the middle eight (“My lights stay up/but your city sleeps”) takes the song into the stratosphere. There’s more punchy pop like ‘First Time’ and ‘Body Language’, and the latter’s “I think we’re over-thinking it” is a great line. ‘Cry’ is tuneful, and pushing towards R&B, while the most vilified song is ‘Store’, which feels like several unrelated songs stitched together, a beautiful verse leading into an inane chorus. It works for me, even if it’s a bit jarring; I find the weakest song the one that Jepsen wasn’t involved in writing – ‘Higher’ is catchy, but generic. Later versions of the EP come with the track ‘Cut To The Feeling’, another excellent Emotion outtake that was featured on the Ballerina soundtrack.
An accomplished, relaxed addendum to Emotion, Side B is an excellent companion piece.
Ten Favourite Carly Rae Jepsen Songs
Run Away With Me
When I Needed You
Call Me Maybe
Let’s Get Lost
Cut To The Feeling
Turn Me Up