Holy fucking shit. This is what love sounds like.
That about summarizes my thoughts upon hearing the chorus of “Run Away With Me,” opening song of E•MO•TION by Carly Rae Jepsen. Some were sentences or sentence-adjacent; others were more akin to synesthesia: fireworks with 256,000-color neon bursts. Then there was the physical feeling, a shuddering euphoric thunderclap.
You feel it when you know you’re in love with someone. In my original review of Carly Rae Jepsen’s third album, I called the sensation “that moment of clarity and comprehension and emotional supernova.” I characterized Jepsen as “a pitch-perfect chronicler of the universal, oft-sappy but nevertheless true feelings that come with falling in love.” I stand by both statements.
The specific moment that triggered romantic synesthesia in a writer who, in June 2015, was an absolute mess convinced he’d be OK if he purged all feelings, is when a gated-beyond-all-belief snare drum hits and then Carly Rae Jepsen shouts “BABY! TAKE ME! TO THE! FEELING! I’LL BE YOUR SINNER IN SECRET! WHEN THE! LIGHTS GO OUT!” Its chorus is written in block letters 10,000 feet tall.
I’m listening to “Run Away With Me” on repeat to make sure I get it right, and … holy fucking shit. This is what love sounds like.
It opens with a saxophone riff Clarence Clemons could’ve played in 1980, continues with synth textures and light, heartbeat percussion, intensifies its 4/4 pulse for the bridges, EXPLODES with that chorus (including more saxophone), recedes to the verse arrangement and then continues through a series of verse-bridge-chorus dynamics that, in 2023, sound to me like something Billy Sherrill might produce if he had synths and drum programming. (That is very high praise. While I doubt Shellback, Mattman & Robin and the other producers on “Run Away With Me” were thinking of Sherrill, I think they’d get my comparison upon hearing the song I linked.)
The craziest thing about E•MO•TION is that it has a half-dozen other songs that sound like love to the degree that “Run Away” does, albeit not always in identical ways. Most albums operating in the arena of pop music are lucky to have one.
Other folks feel this same way about entirely different music. But when I truly fell in love the first time, it was, against all reason, parodically cinematic, and if I’d had E•MO•TION as a reference point, I think it’s what I would’ve heard in my head. Consider: A chance meeting at a concert in high school, an inexplicable spark that, in minutes, is more of an electrical fire, exchanging numbers and then suddenly making out in the rain. You know, shit that never happens—except when it does, because it happened to me. And when I fell in love for the last time—with the same person, SURPRISE; too long a story to narrate here—I did have E•MO•TION as a reference point.
(“Run Away With Me” also factors into how I almost botched the whole thing. I sent them the song because I was in love and didn’t know how to say it. When pressed about it in a text that read, “Why. Did. You. Send. Me. That. Carly Rae Song?!!” I replied, “I just, um really like it and thought you would,” or some such bullshit. I’m not proud of that, for reasons that should be readily apparent. I knew the mistake I was making while making it but couldn’t stop myself. To quote Sturgill Simpson, the rest of the story ain’t all flowers … but ultimately, we’ve been together more than seven years, and friends for 17. So there’s that.)
Because E•MO•TION became a cult favorite almost immediately, a misty layer of myth now surrounds it. It leaked two months ahead of its intended August 2015 U.S. release—perhaps more predictably than any record ever has, due to Interscope’s choice to release it in Japan first. (Carly has a big Japanese fanbase, but that’s why their embrace of it couldn’t be predictive of how it’d fare elsewhere.) As those—myself included—who found the leak were thrilled by this jet-afterburner blast of pop music and began evangelizing it, bits of the backstory began dripping out, deepening the mystery. Did she record more than 30 songs for it, or was it 32? 45? Did she record the 45th song right after one of her Cinderella performances? Was that 45th song part of her “lost indie album?”
Jepsen did have a 12-week run of Cinderella on Broadway in 2014, and credited listening to early Prince and Madonna on morning runs during the show’s residency as an early inspiration for her next record’s sound. She confirms the lost album’s existence in a BBC interview and characterizes it as “indie folk.” But the claim of her recording more than 200 songs in the E•MO•TION sessions isn’t a direct quote; interviewer Mark Savage includes it in an all-prose paragraph early in the article as a guaranteed attention-getter. We know Jepsen publicly released 24 songs: 12 on the “standard” edition of E•MO•TION, three additional tracks for the initial bonus-track version, 2 more on a later “expanded” version and a final batch of 8 for the 2016 release E•MO•TION: Side B. (2017’s perfect “Cut to the Feeling,” released on the Trolls soundtrack, was also from the E•MO•TION sessions; I can’t believe it didn’t make the cut.)
By any standard, it’s clear Jepsen brimmed with boundless energy and creativity during this period, galvanized by complicated feelings about the rush-recording and frazzled marketing of her pure-bubblegum second album, 2012’s Kiss.
While E•MO•TION features one or two confetti-explosions of teenage emotionality that sound somewhat like what the world assumed the next Carly Rae Jepsen album would be (“I Really Like You,” “Boy Problems”), it quickly became clear supportive critics and even some of her fans had underestimated her. E•MO•TION’s title track follows “Run Away With Me” but is dynamically and thematically opposite to its predecessor. The narrator acknowledges an ex-partner’s romantic potential in Technicolor choruses but spending the verses mocking his foolishness in a restrained, kiss-off tone: “Drink tequila for me babe/Let it hit you cold and hot/Let your feelings be revealing that you can’t forget me.” “All That,” produced and co-written by Ariel Rechtshaid and Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange), initially sounds like the band at an eighth-grade semi-formal until you hear the bass and realize no such band plays bass that way. And the shimmers of synth that surface periodically never obscure the low-end-heavy production, funk guitar and Jepsen’s half-sung, half-whispered vocal. “All That” is romantic, too, don’t get me wrong, and CRJ was not gonna come out and say “Let’s fuck.” She didn’t have to. The unabashed carnality speaks for itself precisely because it’s been Trojan-horsed into what could’ve been just another nostalgia trip.
Jepsen surely knew she had a preternatural ability to embody the raw power of teenage emotions—she just had more complex things to say as well. The push-pull of this dynamic is exhilarating to hear: Sometimes it’s point blank, as on the bass- and handclap-driven “Boy Problems.” “Your Type” is more nuanced: Here (sort of like “Emotion”) she’s slagging an ex and his new love in the verses, then plaintively begging “And I’d break all the rules for you/Break my heart and start again” on the 100-megaton new wave-indebted chorus. “When I Needed You” tricks you into believing it’s about clinging to an old relationship but flips the script in the chorus to become a candy-coated “nah, fuck you.” And while “I Really Like You” may not take the musical risks other tracks do, it brilliantly juxtaposes the narrator’s mad rush of lust and infatuation with the mature realization that this is not a life-changing moment—which is why she needs to savor it now. (If that seems like an obvious realization, I invite you to review your own dating history in a High Fidelity-esque sidebar and consider the times you’ve failed to be realistic in such situations—or, conversely, when you’ve been aggressively cynical or emotionally unavailable at times you should’ve been.)
Nothing in pop I’d heard to date—and little if anything since—has matched the pure sincerity of E•MO•TION. On some level, E•MO•TION changed what I looked for in all music, because I began prioritizing artists that projected sincerity and vulnerability regardless of genre. Leonard Cohen once said hip-hop and country music often have great lyrics, and I’ve always felt he was referring to the openness and sincerity those genres showcase at their best (for reasons less dissimilar than you might assume). Carly Rae Jepsen would become a better, subtler lyricist on subsequent albums, but her delivery of lyrics has since rarely eclipsed the bold, beautiful ecstasy of “Run Away With Me” or moments like the chorus of “Gimme Love”: “GIMME LOVE, gimme love gimme love gimme love gimme TOUCH/Cause I want what I want, do you think I want too much?”
There’s little else that exactly sounds like E•MO•TION, either, a big part of its magic that I’ve undersold thus far. It certainly has antecedents: Cyndi Lauper, Blondie, ABBA, Prince’s 1999 and Madonna’s self-titled debut all come to mind. And various moments on the album evoke its producers’ work for other artists, most notably Rechtshaid’s collaborations with Haim and Sky Ferreira, and Mattman & Robin’s long tenure in Swedish pop. But Jepsen wasn’t looking to mimic her influences or follow the sonic blueprint of Max Martin and his disciples, or the EDM and hip-hop strains prevalent in pop during the mid-2010s. Summaries of E•MO•TION often default to “synth-pop,” but that doesn’t feel quite right on its own.
Jepsen’s follow-ups, Dedicated and The Loneliest Time, are similar to Emotion but wisely don’t imitate it, and its impact on the greater pop landscape has been fairly small. But it created a niche for Jepsen in a cutthroat landscape and guaranteed the dedication of a wide-ranging fanbase. I have no doubt that just like I had, so many of those folks heard E•MO•TION and understood they were hearing a unique paean to the outsized feelings that characterize the emotional spectrum of romantic love.
On those nights that resulted in us falling in love again, my partner told me, they’d drive near-maniacally from their mother’s apartment to my place. They knew I was at least 75-percent mess. They knew as strong as our sudden connection in adolescence had been, that was no guarantee of current (or future) romantic success. They knew they could only stay for a day or two, sometimes barely 12 hours, before work or other obligations sent them reeling back.
So they drowned out the doubt with music like “Making the Most of the Night,” the powerful midpoint of E•MO•TION. It’s one of the album’s few minor-key tracks, and the keyboard chimes and layered wordless vocalizations that open it suggest something mournful. The first verse similarly indicates all may not be well. And then the first bridge drives them to hit the gas: “Baby, I’m speeding, and red lights I’ll run/What I’ve got you need it/And I’ll run to your side when your heart is bleeding/I’m coming to getcha, to getcha, to getcha.”
I don’t know if they specifically said or thought “Holy shit, this is what love sounds like.” But I know they knew the feeling.
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