Carly Rae Jepsen
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You know that iconic episode of Sex and the City where Carrie Bradshaw falls on the runway of a fashion show, gets back up, high-fives Heidi Klum and then confidently struts and smiles her way to redemption while everyone applauds her shining moment of resiliency?
Well, earlier today I discovered myself bopping that same kind of strut along Sunset Boulevard listening to Carly Rae Jepsen’s euphoric love-is-in-the-air anthem “Now That I Found You,” the third track on her decadently blissful new album Dedicated.
I actually stopped myself to take in how the song had taken over me because what I was doing was so unusual (and so public). I was one Siri request away from finding the nearest tea dance party, jumping onto the floor and keeping the vibe going as long as I could.
It’s exactly that kind of aural joy and compact, potent songwriting that drove her last album, 2015’s critically-acclaimed (but commercially soft) Emotion, to the top of year-end best album lists, while growing her passionate and pop-loving army of die-hard fans around the globe. Thankfully, Jepsen brings that joy back for a second helping on her fourth studio offering.
The fifteen songs on Dedicated (culled down from about 200 Jepsen says she wrote) are precise—with most clocking in under three-and-a-half minutes. But don’t let the short running times fool you into thinking they’re light on substance or sentiment. Each economically crafted track laser focuses on excavating melodramatic emotions mostly orbiting around the potent highs and lows of love.
Jepsen’s exploration of those obsessive feelings on Dedicated makes total sense given that during the writing and recording of the album she endured a breakup, lived the single life for a while, and then fell in love again. So, naturally, complex, big-swing feelings permeate the entire collection of what Jepsen calls “understated disco” that’s perfect for blasting out of car windows and adding to house party playlists.
At the start of the writing process for the album, Jepsen set out to make the kinds of “dreamy, sexy disco” songs Donna Summer made during her Giorgio Moroder period. I have to tip my hat to her taste here because, when I was a kid in the late ‘70s, I used to carry around my vinyl copy of Summer’s legendary concert album Live and More. So believe me, Carly, I totally get it.
While she and her collaborators eventually deviated from focusing solely on that genre, those iconic musical elements color Dedicated’s sonic canvas throughout, but they’re processed mostly through the prism of today’s digitally-manipulated and house-influenced (see Disclosure or KAYTRANADA) dance-pop sound.
In the shimmering, but ever-so-slightly melancholic opener “Julien,” Jepsen pines desperately for a guy she had a memorable fling with (“I’ve got the blues, babe / Not goin’ away / Another bad dream where you were running away”).
Yes, Carly is stuck in the throes of longing and infatuation (“I’m forever haunted by our time”), but all her angst is smartly set against a sexy, early ‘80s post-disco groove so that you don’t get weighed down with the sadness. After all, this is her problem, not ours.
When the seductive hook crescendos with Jepsen breathily proclaiming to the universe, “I’ll be whispering ‘Julien’ / Through the last breath that I breathe” (with the last line accented by a steel pan), the urge to break free and dance with our arms in the air like Madonna in her “Into The Groove” music video is unavoidable.
That unrestrained liberty to hit the floor shifts into overdrive in the aforementioned “Now That I Found You,” with Jepsen celebrating the explosive moment she realizes that she’s fallen in love and there’s no turning back.
Over an uplifting, party-ready dance beat (one of the few “hands in the air” moments on the album), Jepsen rides the rollercoaster rush of love endorphins (“I want it all / Cuz there’s nothing like this feeling, baby / Now that I’ve found you”). Is this all just because the sex is so good? Does he feel the same way about her? It doesn’t really matter; let’s just hit the dance floor with Jepsen to celebrate that she’s finally “coming alive” with her new love...before the ordinariness of the new relationship sets in.
When Jepsen does want sex, like in the cheery Jack Antonoff-produced “Want You In My Room,” she clarifies her “I wanna do bad things to you” request with teenaged reasoning (“I just wanna get a little bit closer / And I'll press you to the pages of my heart / Hey!”). It’s these sorts of straight-from-my-diary lyrics that keep the 33-year old songwriter relevant to young listeners, while reconnecting older fans to memories of their own dramatic, candy-coated teen years.
Sonically, here Antonoff produces a love letter to ‘80s pop and R&B with drum machines, synthesizers, jangly electric guitar, saxophone and even a hint of Madonna’s “Where’s The Party?” But he mixes it all with present day Daft Punk-style processed robot vocals that trade sexual demands back and forth with Jepsen in the hook (“I want you in my room / On the bed, on the floor.”)
It’s worth mentioning that all over the album we hear pitch-shifted synths, warped vocals, nostalgic drum machines and even a little vocoder here and there. Nowhere is this experimental tweaking more apparent (and more successful) than in the supremely weird “Everything He Needs,” which lifts a Harry Nilsson-penned song sample from the 1980 Robin Williams musical comedy Popeye for the hook.
The entire song is bent, twisted, and warbled through a psychedelic filter. It’s the craziest track on the album; a veiled stab at making musical theater cool for a modern audience. Judging from how many times in a row I’ve played it -- along with the OMG reactions I’ve seen online about the song—it works 100%.
Elsewhere on the album, Jepsen explores her jealous side by sliding into a rockin’ live band sound with The Police-tinged stomper “I’ll Be Your Girl.” Then she flirts with a minimal Vampire Weekend vibe on the hypnotically chanting breakup song “For Sure.” And, further down the album, she longs for a meaningful connection that will last amongst an explosive Marshmello-esque EDM hook on “Real Love.”
No matter the genre Jepsen plays with on the album, every song on Dedicated provides a deeper peek into who Carly Rae Jepsen, the woman, actually is. Because we know so little about her beyond the music she makes (which, she says, is a deliberate choice,) listening to Dedicated opens up a secret space where we can finally get closer to her. The album holds us securely in her bubble and under her spell.
So, when she duets with Los Angeles-based indie pop’ers Electric Guest for “Feels Right,” it feels like a misstep. That’s not because it’s a bad song; it’s actually really good. But hearing Jepsen suddenly share the mic removes us from the insular world we’ve been intimately sharing one-on-one with Jepsen so far on the album.
It makes me wonder what some of the other Jack Antonoff-produced songs that didn’t make the album, or the album’s title track, which didn’t make the cut, would sound like in its place.
That aside, Dedicated is another album triumph for Jepsen. From beginning to end, she drills down to the juicy nuggets of obsession and desperation that drive all of our emotional highs and lows—and then celebrates those feelings (good or bad as they can be) because they’re so universal.
It’s an album of sensual, revelatory and exploratory pop music that realizes the pulse of the dance floor can take you higher when you’re feeling on top, and keep you afloat when you’re suddenly sinking. All you have to do is “Cut to the Feeling” and start strutting. The beat will take care of the rest.
Notable Tracks: "Everything He Needs" | “For Sure” | "Julien" | “Now That I Found You” | “Want You In My Room”