After Carly Rae Jepsen’s enormous 2012 hit “Call Me Maybe,” it seemed like the Canadian pop star would be relegated to one-hit wonder territory. The album it spurred, Kiss, never produced a single as big, plus the ubiquity of “Maybe” is difficult to top and lightning that cheesy doesn’t strike twice. But what Jepsen has come to show us with her third studio album Emotion is that she is the master of the teen pop okey-doke.
At first blush, “I Really Like You,” the album’s lead single, is super chaste and topples “Maybe” with its saccharine. But there is a particularity to its restraint that uplifts it from blind yearning into grown-woman rationality. When Jepsen sings, “It’s way too soon, I know this isn’t love” she’s flexing the common sense only someone who’s been through it can. What unfolds throughout the rest of the album is a collection of pristine, Cyndi Lauper-inspired pop that bolsters this kind of emotionally-elevated songwriting. The record isn’t about puppy love, it’s about your ability to access a heart worn with scar tissue and trusting it can mend again. And again. And again. And that it’s worth it every single time.
Its opener “Run Away With Me” is pure elation, not just with its synth sax and snappy percussion, but because it is embodies the idea of whirlwind romance without being cloying or naive. The Dev Hynes-helmed “All That” sparkles with coy boasting, while the album’s title track’s “drink tequila for me, babe”-ing emboldens the same kind of Think About How Good This Could Be confidence. Even when love doesn’t rule in Carly’s favor, as it does on the perma-crush pean “Your Type,” where she waxes about how there’s just no way to turn unrequited love around, is devoid of the toxicity of the blame game. According to Taylor Swift, boys only want love when it’s torture, but in Carly’s world, love is always vibrant, even when you can’t have what you want. Being jaded is something for people without the experience to know you still endure even when love fails, that you can find it again, and it isn’t always misery-making.
But even when romance goes awry, Jepsen’s songs are unabashedly positive. The bouncy “Boy Problems” laments how irritating a person becomes complaining constantly about romantic follies, putting the onus of it on yourself. And it’s true! One of the things everyone forgets about troubles of the heart is that not a single person wants to hear about it more than three times unless, maybe, there’s some steamy anecdote to go along with it.
Jepsen is no stranger to a going-out-to-fuck song (see: “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” featuring Nicki Minaj from Kiss). “I Didn’t Just Come Here To Dance,” which says it all in the title, is the strongest cut on the album, despite leaning into some of the worst impulses to pop-ify house music: it’s a coquette in the club anthem and the hook is utter euphoria. When Jepsen sings, “Hey, Joe’s calling me, Tino is calling me over* / I only came here for you,” she’s flaunting her sexuality without desperation. Most of what Emotion does through its nuance is beam with declarations of one’s own worthiness, while being self-aware enough to know when things are not perfect.
If you’re not completely sold on Emotion’s ‘80s allure, you’ll find chintziness all over the place, especially on lesser tracks like “Let’s Get Lost” and “Black Heart.” And while “Making the Most of the Night” has been one of the most popular of the songs unveiled before the album’s release, it doesn’t separate Jepsen from the competition the way the other songs do. Another odd moment on Emotion is “LA Hallucinations,” despite its sturdy Sunset Strip synths and nostalgia for past recklessness. At the bridge, Jepsen sings, “BuzzFeed buzzards and TMZ crows / What can I say that you don’t already know?” Yes, gossip-mongering and paparazzi dust-ups are common in Los Angeles, but such specific references remove the listener from Emotion’s near-timelessness and, frankly, dearth of pettiness.
Emotion’s lack of frivolity is exactly how it stands out. Economical is always how Jepsen has presented herself, whether it was the earnest pop rock of debut Tug of War or even in the Hail Mary pass within “Call Me Maybe.” Despite the critical acclaim for almost every bit of Emotion—follow enough music journalists and their adjacent counterparts on social media and you will see at least one piece of praise for this output every single day—there’s an image positioning Jepsen is missing that will catapult her to the same climes as her other pop counterparts. She doesn’t have the costuming of Katy Perry or the zero fucks of Rihanna; she isn’t presenting bestie pantomime like Taylor Swift or exploring her body like Miley Cyrus. Jepsen doesn’t need a pull, though, because hers has always been about feeling something real. This is not to say the others don’t, it is just Jepsen’s thing—histrionics are hardly existent and reality isn’t a call for excuse-making. Emotion is an album full of clarity, and she only had to get there by being herself.
*C’mon. Of course this album is by a woman in her 30s, invoking My So-Called Life’s Rayanne like that.
Claire Lobenfeld is a music and culture critic living in NYC.
Image via Interscope.