It happens every now and again. A pure pop performer, completely unabashed in their rejection of arty, anguished pretenses, flares up with a handful of songs that makes the cool, snobbish music aficionados decide the artist is briefly acceptable to embrace. Sometimes there’s a hint of irony to it, a genial protestation that insists a rule-proving exception is afoot. Kelly Clarkson had her dance on that particular floor several years back, when “Since U Been Gone” took up residence between Death Cab for Cutie and Decemberists on all the proudly scruffy mix CDs.
These days, Carly Rae Jepsen is the beneficiary of this same strange strain of affection, beginning with last year’s Emotion (though there’s been some retroactive acceptance dust sprinkled on “Call Me Maybe,” transforming it from a guilty pleasure to a splendid hint of the joys to come). I think the mighty pleasures of Emotion‘s very best songs caused some to round up in their estimations of the full album, but it’s hard to deny Jepsen was tapping into something. For all the acts playing with the sound of the nineteen-eighties, especially on the indie pop side of the music house, none swirled that cocktail with quite as much panache as Jepsen. At its best, the music had an obvious resemblance to its ancestors, but it somehow seemed completely fresh. It was familiar, but not so retro that it immediately became dated. Quite the opposite is true. Jepsen took the old tricks and made them her own, and in doing so created material that feels remarkably timeless, like pop songs that have always been there, conjuring happy nostalgia from the very first encounter.
Just over a year after Emotion hit, Jepsen demonstrates the well she drew from may just be bottomless. Drawing from material recorded at roughly the same time — I’ve seen one review that claims she banked around two-hundred songs — Jepsen has released Emotion Side B, which she straight up concedes is a mere placeholder as she works on new material. And yet it doesn’t feel like that. There’s nothing throwaway about it. Instead, like the original Odds & Sods, Jepsen’s album comes across as a vital expansion. The camera pulls back from its close-up to reveal even more of the vast, intoxicating mosaic. Hell, by virtue of the succinct focus that comes with brevity — the new release checks in at a mere eight tracks and less than thirty minutes total — Emotion Side B may actually be superior to its namesake.
The pop mastery of Jepsen — and, it is important to note, her hearty band of collaborators — might carry reverberating beats from U.S. hits thirty years past, but it’s also reminiscent of the giddy highs hit by Robyn on her Body Talk releases. “Higher” has a quivering inner life that recalls the great “Dancing on My Own,” and all of the songs operate with the same piercing directness in their lyrics. Jepsen is committed to the notion that this music is best — is truest — when it’s conveying emotions that locked in somewhere around the age of fifteen. On “Fever,” Jepsen sings about stealing and riding the bike of a guy who broke her heart, and it’s clear we’re talking something closer to Huffy than Harley, even before the telltale line “Dropped off your helmet and lock for me.” As plenty have already observed, the ludicrously infectious “Store” skews perilously close to the manufactured spoofing of the Robin Sparkles hit “Let’s Go to the Mall.” That the Jepsen track maintains a grand, unlikely dignity despite this hints at the level of brilliance at play.
It’s fine to dig, dig, dig to figure out why Jepsen’s music soars while offerings from her peers come across like cheap plastic doodads toppling off a conveyor belt, but the repeated refrain in the delectable “Body Language” offers a piquant counterargument: “I think we’re overthinking it.” Bubblegum gets invoked plenty for music like this, but it’s more precise to correlate Jepsen’s songs to gumballs. They come in a jillion different colors, but there’s a fundamental similarity to each one. They’re all equally satisfying. More pertinently, when engaged properly and vigorously, they all snap the same.