Before this year, Carly Rae Jepsen seemed like the quintessential one-hit wonder, even if she had technically had two hits. She was known primarily for a silly borderline-novelty song that was launched primarily by going viral on social media, and her actual album was a miniscule hit compared to that one individual single, and these are all generally signs that a performer is not going to have much of a shelf-life. On top of that, she appeared as a replacement lead in a Broadway show, and that is rarely a sign of career health for a mainstream pop singer (case in point: Clay Aiken in Spamalot).
So when this album was released, especially given an extremely poor choice of lead single, virtually everyone was expecting it to be a forgettable mediocrity after which she would probably disappear for good. So this album’s frankly stunning quality wound up surprising a lot of people, and I’m not ashamed to say I was one of them.
Everyone is comparing this album to 1989 by Taylor Swift, another album that silenced an uproar of preliminary skepticism, with some even suggesting that it is superior to that modern masterpiece. In reality, the album isn’t quite as good as 1989 (mostly because it lacks that album’s range and variety), but it does tap into that same shimmering, ravishing blend of retro influences and totally new sounds, and it still stands as one of the greatest albums of the current year.
And like 1989, it decided to advertise itself with the worst song on the album, “I Really Like You”, a blatant retread of Carly Rae Jepsen’s first hit, “Call Me Maybe”, with an incredibly annoying repetitive hook that sounds more like a parody of her earlier work than anything else. At least with “Shake It Off”, one could see the commercial (if not artistic) justification for going with it as a lead single, but since there’s not really a conventional winning formula for a smash hit song anywhere on this album, they really should have taken a chance on one of the more rarefied tracks and hoped for lightning to strike, which it obviously has done repeatedly in a decade where “Somebody That I Used To Know” topped a Year-End Chart
But despite the poor choice of initial publicity, pretty much everything else here is lovely. The second single, “Run Away With Me”, which should have been released first to begin with, is a perfect example, a huge, sweeping love song at once ecstatic and desperate, and loaded with melody from the intro verse to the chorus. The title track has perky music that sounds like a cute love song, but the scorching, mocking lyrics make most of Kelly Clarkson’s output look tame by comparison (the opening line is ‘Be tormented by me, baby’). “Gimmie Love” makes far better use of a repeating hook than “I Really Like You”, creating one of the most haunting choruses I’ve ever heard in conventional uptempo pop.
The motor-mouthed Funk Jam “Making the Most of the Night” provides a burst of uptempo energy, sounding different enough from the songs it’s influenced by to qualify as a synthesis of new genres rather than a mere throwback. “All That” provides the album with a truly elegant slow ballad to provide contrast with all its up-tunes. And for those who still see Carly Rae Jepsen as a squeaky-clean, sexless pop princess, we have one of the most erotic pop songs of the decade, “Warm Blood”, which sounds uncannily like actual love noises in both music and words.
Then there is the album’s high point, “Your Type”, a devastating, anguished love song featuring Jepsen’s rawest and most dramatic performance ever (apparently, she used an E-cigarette for days beforehand purely to get precisely the right broken, raw-throated sound for the song). I’ve heard people complain about Jepsen’s supposed lack of personality, but this is an effect created by her unwillingness to make an ass of herself in her public persona…she displays plenty of depth and, yes, emotion on her performances here, and her rendition of “Your Type” is revelatory. This album isn’t turning out to be the commercial juggernaut that 1989 did, partly because Jepsen has not received nearly as much promotion, but the serious pop listeners are definitely realizing how brilliant it actually is, and it seems likely to live on in history as one of the truly great albums of the 2010s. Rolling Stone and Pitchfork gave it lukewarm reviews at the time, but don’t be surprised if it winds up on their ‘best of the decade’ lists in five years.