Jakarta-based writer who frequently writes about music, pop culture and social commentary
Singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen performs live in concert as the supporting act of Katy Perry’s Witness The Tour event held at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, on Jan. 10, 2018. (AFP/Suzanne Cordeiro)
So what’s a musician to do after a watershed album that not only obliterated the fickle line between ‘mainstream’ and ‘indie’ but in its own subtle ways defined the zeitgeist? Carly Rae Jepsen’s latest offering, Dedicated, isn’t necessarily her Homogenic, in reference to Bjork's monumental album. That would be 2016’s E●MO●TION: Side B, as it is her Vespertine: the chilled-out, down-home tour de force spiritually hinted at in lead single and closing track “Party for One”.
It’s befitting, then, that Jepsen had initially thought of titling the album Music To Clean Your House To; just as in the “Party for One” visual accompaniment, Dedicated is perhaps best devoured in the comfort of your own bedroom, in your favorite worn-out T-shirt and undies.
There’s a more relaxed and understated feel to Dedicated that might be confounding for those expecting a retread of E●MO●TION’s big, boisterous sound. Then again, Jepsen kick-started her career with a largely forgotten folk-pop – mostly self-written – debut album following a stint on Canadian Idol (she placed third). Playing by the rules has simply never been her modus operandi; this is after all the same songstress whose accompanying video to her biggest hit features a gay twist.
True to its title, though, Dedicated finds Jepsen autopsying the ins and outs of romance with acute keenness, only belied by the sugary bubbliness of her vocal performance sprinkled atop synth-laden confections. And therein lies Jepsen’s genius: underneath the poppy façade lies a restless soul that’s a tad too obsessed with love and hell-bent on getting to the heart of the matter, as it were.
On “Happy Not Knowing”, for instance, she proclaims “All our friends that I know/They’ve been trying to set us up together/I lie/I say somebody else would suit you better” over a bouncy, funk-inflected shuffle.
In a lesser artist’s hand, “Too Much” would be a standard fare, trop-pop excursion. In Jepsen’s handle, it becomes a genuine cri de coeur in all its infectiousness. Its opening line (“I live for the fire/And the rain/And the drama too”) doubles as Jepsen’s overarching politics on love and a nod to the James Taylor's (one of Jepsen’s biggest influences) classic.
A casual listener with a certain idea of pop music might find it too easy to brush Jepsen off as a throwaway, secondary pop act. That at this point the general public seemingly won’t let her have another day in the sun with her post-“Call Me Maybe” oeuvre despite its consistent excellence means that all those “One hit wonder!” jokes really are on the masses, not her.
To me, Jepsen is something of a throwback to '90s female pop musicians, such as Natalie Imbruglia and Jennifer Paige: Both suffered from the one-hit-wonder stigma yet continued to improve their craft and produced solid, if lesser-known, work.
As singers, all three may not possess the type of vocal prowess that the average music fan would be enthralled by. Rather, they operate in more unassuming ranges, but no less impressive or powerful and occasionally even more affecting, of service to the actual music. That they are also songwriters means that there’s an aptitude to tailor their output so as to play to their strengths, another voice at work.
Released as a dual single earlier this year, and placed back-to-back on Dedicated, “No Drug Like Me” and “Now That I Found You” are the two poles that make up Jepsen’s sonic universe: She can deliver languid, sexy breathiness with equal proficiency as she does a peppy, happy-go-lucky type of number that has become her signature sound.
Over the course of Dedicated, she zigzags between these two extremes with aplomb. The vaporwave-leaning “Everything He Needs” perhaps marks the best of both worlds, juxtaposing plucky piano lines with woozy, swirling synths and Jepsen’s sweet coo of giving love to her better half “not just physically... emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, sexually... all the ways”. Talk about dedication.
Meanwhile, album standout “Want You In My Room” marries crunchy guitar riffs with slightly manic, shrieky vocalizing to winning effects, making you question whether her intention to “do bad things” to her love interest actually has any sexual undertone at all. The Mariah Carey-inspired “Automatically In Love” is a successful '90s R&B update on E●MO●TION’s slow-burning, Prince-indebted “All That”, that just calls for an immediate feature on a Netflix original (also noteworthy that “Now That I Found You” was used in the trailer for the latest Queer Eye season).
Elsewhere, Jepsens stretches her musical scope to include '70s light disco (the stunning opener “Julien”), ska (Gwen Stefani could absolutely lend more pizzaz to “I’ll Be Your Girl”) and even tribal elements (Jepsen might want to explore the intriguing direction of “For Sure” in future recordings). Curiously, it’s when Jepsen revisits the more traditional singer-songwriter route that she slightly stumbles, as the lyrical prowess of “Right Words Wrong Time” fails to be uplifted by its perfunctory aural backdrop.
It’s a minor gripe, however, in an album full of bite-sized triumphs—none of the 15 tracks exceeds three minutes, some even fall short of the minute mark. “I’ve spent my whole life being told that it has to be like this or that and I’m ready to move away from that... I’ve always been more inclined for the artistry of it than the celebrity of it,” she asserted recently.
Couple this with Jepsen literally turning her back on the camera for the cover art, this is where Dedicated takes on a double meaning: As one of the tracks would attest to, she doesn’t need words to prove her dedication when there’s the sound. (wng)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.