I don’t dispute the decision to award the prize of Pop Vocal Album of the Year at this year’s Grammys to Taylor Swift’s 1989. Her album is an earnest paean to some of the great 1980s synth- and dance-pop acts like Madonna and Eurythmics and, at times, a refreshing take on the better aspects of Benetar-esque power pop; “Style” remains a favorite of mine.
Nevertheless, the absence of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion from the list of nominees is a glaring oversight. The group of other nominated albums – all condemned without proper trial to stand in the destructive path of Hurricane Swift – put forward by worthy candidates like a drifting Florence + The Machine, a ubiquitous Mark Ronson (still a high achiever on both sides of the soundboard), and a reliable Kelly Clarkson, would have been fortified by the presence of Jepsen.
Emotion is a sincere attempt to break free of the shackles of that one massive hit for which the vast majority of listeners still know her. Jepsen’s multi-year retreat to write, formation of a league of contributors and producers including Sia Furler and Shellback, and visits to recording studios around the globe were well reported. While not perfect, the album that resulted from this process, finally released in June of last year, laudably establishes itself in a position to consider, synthesize, and embrace trends in pop music from the 1980s to the present.
Its opening one-two-three punch is memorable. The synthesized horns of “Run Away With Me” introduce a delivery that, like Swift’s, borrows from Pat Benatar. Its choruses, cascading Robyn-ized combinations of emotion and declaration, are nicely contrasted by the contemporary pacing that surfaces at the song’s bridge. Jepsen sounds more in the swing of things on the album’s title track, in which a second chorus, punctured by synthesized pops, is pure danceability. “I Really Like You”, Emotion’s third offering and first single, is frustrating, not in terms of the song’s end result – it is an unabashed movement-inducing piece of bubblegum – but of its motives: The overemphasis of a repeated chorus immediately recalls the beloved/dreaded “Call Me Maybe”. Isn’t this type of pop song exactly what she was trying to avoid?
I digress. The album’s hit-and-miss middle and tail end still manage to continue establishing and maintaining some songs’ individuality as fatigue creeps in. The time-for-a-slow-dance sounds of “All That” hint at the communal reaction to a wedding DJ’s decision to spin “Time After Time”. “Boy Problems”, which kicks off with a sly wink at Madonna’s “Holiday” before ratcheting up the funk, puts together some variegated takes on the song’s seemingly simplistic subject matter; the robotic delivery of the chorus’s finale is a particularly fun act of punctuation. Her influences remain diverse: The whirling chorus of “Making The Most Of The Night” is a nice reminder of Miami Sound Machine; “Your Type” puts forward some Cher-like intensity.
Jepsen’s album-long effort to throw multiple components of pop music at the wall finally succeeds in making everything stick with “Warm Blood”, the great standout of Emotion’s second half. The first strokes, which outwardly do nothing more than conventionally pair ethereal vocals and standard EDM beats, shouldn’t be discarded. Consider the juxtaposition of the two basic elements with which the song claims space: voice and electronic churn.
Her nearly unintelligible initial four-line interjection – “I’ve got a cavern of secrets / None of them are for you / Even if you wanted to keep them / Where would you find the room?” – is crucial in this regard, as it is the presence of voice, rather than lyrical content, that is emphasized and framed by rising and falling progressions and guided towards a chorus that steers clear of conventionality by integrating some interesting dubstep touches and memorable vocal flourishes; Jepsen’s manner of putting together the initial words of its finale – “I would throw in the towel for you, boy” – are another of the song’s attention-grabbing touches.
The subsequent stage, an interlude in which Jepsen’s vocals are heavily distorted, surprisingly allows for a brief mirroring of Burial’s “Archangel”. Matching the pace and intensity of the song’s developing electronics – which remarkably keep things interesting by means of effects and embrace of range – and maintaining the point of comparison established at the outset, she halts her efforts to obscure content while still developing a delivery that ranges from whispers to pierces. Her various approaches to the channeling of the chorus – “Warm blood underneath my skin / Warm blood, my heart is pumping” – underscore a notion of humanity that becomes further nuanced by both recognition of subjectivity – “I saw myself tonight / Caught my reflection in the mirror” – and desire for connection.
When considered alongside the song’s subject matter and the album’s title, Jepsen’s “Warm Blood” argues that even though there is a total dependence on synthesized and computerized musical elements, sentiment, both in terms of presence and articulation, need not be lost. It is this that wins the day as the music tapers off, clearing the stage to underscore a few final utterances of, significantly, Jepsen’s least polished delivery of the song’s title.
So is Emotion better than 1989 or the other albums nominated for Pop Vocal Album of the Year? If you’re a Swiftie, then there might be no need for discussion: On superficial terms, Jepsen’s effort lacks the huge singles and the sales and the viral videos, although it’s impossible to entirely hate Tom Hanks’s surprising on-screen appearance to shill “I Really Like You”. However, its determination, especially amidst the muggy lassitude that settles over many pop musicians at the point of innovation, rises above those that disguise fears of failure in the trappings of irony or idly tube by on the mainstream. She has wholly tried and partially succeeded: Emotion – and several of its component parts like “Warm Blood” – are worthy of respect and recognition.
“Warm Blood” – Carly Rae Jepsen
Music and lyrics by Carly Rae Jepsen, Rostam Batmanglij, Tino Zolfo, and Joe Cruz
B. Stafford is the 14th Floor’s Annex-based music critic.