We talk a lot about surprise nowadays, but experience it too rarely. Beyoncé dropped her self-titled masterwork from pop valhalla at the end of 2013. Ever since, our idea of surprise equates to the suddenness of an album’s release. Alas, the rose has lost its bloom. The practice has reached the point of absurdity.
Take Frank Ocean, whose follow-up to Channel Orange is long overdue. He’s been teasing a forthcoming album with a trickle of information and zero notes of music. Ocean suggested it would arrive sometime in July, which came and went without a peep from Team Frank. A frustrated internet responded by parking an unmarked van outside of Ocean’s website. Fan surveillance has since reached NSA-like levels. A recent update to his site’s code sparked a social media frenzy. Surprise! We got an early peek of what looks like tour merchandise. (Oh happy day.) Ocean’s new record will likely drop any time now, and when it does, it may end up being great. What it won’t be, though, is a surprise.
Looking for a genuine shocker, a true head-spinner? Carly Rae Jepsen has delivered one, and it’s called Emotion. Before I continue, consider this a trigger warning for you grumps out there. Jepsen is the Canadian Idol also-ran who once authored a Bieber-approved, world conquering single. If these credentials cause you to dismiss her on principle, find a safe space now. The following paragraphs will likely incite scorn, if not apoplexy.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album is terrific — like really, really, really, really, really. Not only is Emotion an ensemble of sterling pop, it’s a creative breakthrough on par with Robyn and Speak Now. Forgive my unbridled enthusiasm, which resembles a teenager’s lack of composure. Blame this artist’s impeccable taste and canny vision, realized on Emotion with blinding Technicolor.
Jepsen’s effervescent third LP has been available in Japan for a couple of months now. (An inexplicable business decision that amounts to a small scandal.) So, in this case, surprise doesn’t come with an album’s release, but with its high quality. Which is to say, Emotion is an old fashioned eye-opener. It’s the shiny birthday present stowed in a random closet, hidden in plain sight. It’s also the best gift you never asked for, or even knew you wanted in the first place. I could say the same about CRJ herself, a minor pop star who’s emerged as the genre’s newest MVP.
Emotion, to borrow the parlance of clickbait, restores my faith in the music industry. That Jepsen had the freedom to handpick a coterie of buzzy collaborators seems crazy. (They include Ariel Rechtshaid, Dev Hynes, Sia, Shellback, Peter Svensson, and Rostam Batmanglij.) That she worked on a couple hundred tracks before settling on twelve choice cuts seems nuts. That she succeeded in making a near-perfect pop album seems insane. According to Jepsen and her people, this was the plan all along. Scooter Braun, her manager, outlined their strategy for the New York Times. Braun, an executive producer on Emotion, said they “wanted to stop worrying about singles.” Instead, they sought to create “a critically acclaimed album.”
What a gambit! But trading marketability for applause has paid off, big time, for Jepsen. Braun’s narrative no doubt sounds like convenient spin. “I Really Like You”, the closest sequel to “Call Me Maybe” here, has underperformed on the charts. (It peaked at number 39 on the Hot 100.) Emotion’s subsequent singles have only fared worse. Even so, the album’s excellence speaks for itself. Wouldn’t it be a relief if great sales were the goal, and artistic greatness the actual outcome? The pop landscape could stand to suffer more commercial disappointments this wonderful.
Track for track, Emotion is a more consistent album than 1989, its 80s-indebted analog. There’s no question: Taylor Swift is a tremendous songwriter. Ryan Adams has discovered as much, first hand, as he's been reinterpreting 1989’s songs. But Jepsen has more to prove, and her hunger rumbles throughout Emotion. Her collaborators are just as enthusiastic. They've crafted tunes that split wide open with aural ecstasy. Apart from the gorgeous, Prince-ly seep of “All That”, Emotion bounces across its runtime. This is despite themes that cover heartbreak (“Your Type”), vengeance (“Emotion”), self-doubt (“When I Needed You”), weariness (“LA Hallucinations”), and depression (“Making the Most of the Night”). The album soars highest when it fully embraces its bubblegum roots. Opener “Run Away with Me” slinks above a honking saxophone hook. The indelible “Gimmie Love” struts underneath the reflections of a mirrorball. Lead single “I Really Like You” hits its stride through a gigantic chorus. And then there’s “Warm Blood”, the throbbing, misshapen gumdrop plopped atop this pop sundae.
I want to say Emotion is an album so good it explodes expectations. But that would only be accurate if Carly Rae Jepsen were on my radar at all. No, Emotion is so good, it’s formed sky-high expectations out of thin air. I hope CRJ is prepared for NSA-like levels of surveillance in a couple of years. A MINUS
Emotion is out later this month.