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 follow-up 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 that 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 it’s 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 piece is heading 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’ finds Jepsen unevenly yoked with a lesser talent.
Kiss is a serviceable effort from Jepsen, but as a rushed effort to capitalise on the success of ‘Call Me Maybe’, 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 follow-up, 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. The acclaim is deserved; the momentum barely flags over the twelve tracks, consistently delivering pop hooks and emotional heft.
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.
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.
Dedicated was conceived as chill disco, and it’s more synthetic than Emotion. Jepsen’s image change to blonde hair, and the advance single and video for ‘Party For One’, seemed intent on remodelling her image for a grown-up audience. Jepsen’s vocals are more confident than ever before, and although she sees herself primarily as a songwriter, she’s developed into an excellent vocalist.
Jepsen’s previous work often skirted around the fringes of relationships – anticipating infatuation or dissecting regret. But Dedicated is focused on the now – songs like ‘Want You In My Room’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’ are lusty and unabashedly enthusiastic and sound like they’re written about an actual relationship.
The best songs on Dedicated are the fast ones. Along with the soaring ‘Now That I Found You’, ‘I Want You In My Room’, a collaboration with Jack Antonoff, rides a slinky groove, with Jepsen shouting commands like “I got you covered, under covers.” ‘Feels Right’ features the electro-funk of Electric Guest, while ‘Everything He Needs’ features a writing credit for Harry Nilsson, and a breezy ska feel.
Among the moodier tracks on Dedicated, ‘No Drug Like Me’ is especially gorgeous with its refrain of “starry eyes, blurry eyes/feeling so intoxicated”. ‘Too Much’ is a mission statement for Jepsen, explaining the emotional cleft on her songs; “when I feel it, then I feel it too much.” There’s some excellent contemplative material tucked away at the end – closer ‘Real Love’ and bonus track ‘For Sure’ are both excellent, although dropping ‘Right Words Wrong Time’ would have helped the album’s flow.
Dedicated is a high-quality record from a talented operator. Just as for Emotion, Jepsen reportedly wrote about 200 songs for Dedicated – so hopefully there’s a Dedicated: Side B in the works.
Dedicated: Side B
As with her previous release cycle, Jepsen released twelve Dedicated outtakes as Dedicated: Side B. Like Dedicated, Side B feels like a move away from the girl next door image of ‘Call Me Maybe’ – a sexy cover shot and lyrics that move away from the obsessive infatuation of her earlier work. Dedicated Side B is impressively cohesive for a collection of outtakes – at 44 minutes and 12, generally strong, tracks, it plays like a proper studio album.
The chilled and sophisticated pop of ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Comeback’ are some of Jepsen’s best gentle moments to date. Producer Jack Antonoff is promoted to backing vocals on the latter. Jepsen’s stock-in-trade is explosive, euphoric choruses, and the best payoff is on the soaring ‘Solo’. At one point, Jepsen planned Dedicated as an Abba-influenced album of classy disco, and vestiges remain in ‘Summer Love’ and ‘This Love Isn’t Crazy’. The over-simplicity of ‘Let’s Sort The Whole Thing Out’ grates quickly, while I haven’t yet decided if closer ‘I Don’t Hate California’ is an interesting diversion or a noble failure.
Bright and breezy, Dedicated Side B feels a little unsubstantial in places, but like every Jepsen project since her critical breakthrough with Emotion she’s full of enthusiastic fun.
The Loneliest Time
Known for her upbeat songs, the writing period for The Loneliest Time was tough for Jepsen. Newly single, she was stranded in Los Angeles during the Covid-19 lockdown, unable to attend her grandmother’s funeral. There are songs on The Loneliest Time that reference these events – ‘Go Find Yourself Or Whatever’ is about the breakup, while the relaxed lead single ‘Western Wind’ wasn’t written for release, but for a way for Jepsen to process her feelings. But the overall impression of The Loneliest Time is a relaxed and airy album. Jepsen describes it as a “playground of all the eras” – not focusing on any particular period for inspiration.
The first two singles illustrate the album’s diverse nature – lead single ‘Western Wind’ is classy adult pop, while ‘Beach House’ is cheeky disco about a bad experience on a dating app. The slow-burning buildup of ‘Surrender My Heart’ makes for a terrific opener, while ‘Anxious’ is another great Jepsen song relegated to bonus track status. Jepsen’s way with a tune makes The Loneliest Time consistently engaging.
Despite some sadness in its origins, The Loneliest Time is a fun addition to Jepsen’s increasingly impressive catalogue.
THE LOVELIEST TIME
CRJ fans know the drill by now. She’s a prolific writer, so each album is followed by a collection of outtakes. The Loveliest Time is the companion to 2022’s The Loneliest Time. In an interview with Variety, Jepsen stated that she enjoys making outtake collections – “I really leaned into it being one of the most exciting processes for me. The B-sides territory is this expansive world where I can play in all directions.” Accordingly, The Loveliest Time is Carly Rae Jepsen’s most expansive release yet.
It’s the upbeat songs that are the most arresting. ‘Shy Boy’ was the lead single, and it has the euphoric lift of Jepsen’s best work, interpolating ‘Midas Touch’ by Kentucky electro-funk band Midnight Star. Jepsen also dips into classy disco on ‘Psychedelic Switch’. ‘Anything To Be With You’ is a surprising opener, with its multi-tracked vocals and urgency. Some of the most eclectic material is clustered toward the end – ‘Stadium Love’ has the arena-rock feel that its title implies, while ‘Put It to Rest’ is retrained and classy. The Loneliest Time feels more adult than Jepsen’s earlier work. The Emotion era explored the liminal spaces between relationships, mourning past relationships and anticipating new ones. The Loveliest Time feels real, imbued with love and lust.
As you’d expect from an outtake collection, The Loveliest Time is less consistent than its parent album, but it’s another impressive entry in Jepsen’s overlooked post-‘Call Me Maybe’ work.
Ten Best Carly Rae Jepsen Songs
Run Away With Me
When I Needed You
Call Me Maybe
Now That I Found You
Surrender My Heart
Cut To The Feeling
Back to 2010s Album Reviews….
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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