Album Reviews

Carly Rae Jepsen Serves Pure Pop Perfection on ‘Kiss’ (Album Review)

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From the second after fellow Canadian crooner Justin Bieber tweeted her name, Carly Rae Jepsen‘s life changed.

It’s not that Jepsen was necessarily new to the industry, though: Back in Canada, the bubbly chanteuse was already known after placing 3rd overall on the 5th season of Canadian Idol, which led to her studio debut Tug of War in September of 2008, which in turn led to a handful of singles that performed okay-ish on Canada’s Hot 100.

But it wasn’t until she released “Call Me Maybe” last September, the mind-bogglingly, unstoppably, I’ve-heard-this-five-million-times-and-I’m-still-scream-singing-it-in-my-car-whenever-it-comes-on-catchy swoon fest (or, as I described it, “the catchiest song in the history of ever”) that Jepsen’s entire career trajectory shifted.

After topping the Canadian radio charts, the song caught the ear of a few influential parties across the border–cue that tweet from Bieber, his girlfriend Selena Gomez and Katy Perry among others–which quickly resulted in an invitation to Los Angeles from Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun.

Within what seemed like a matter of minutes, the songstress was signed to Schoolboy Records (Braun’s label) and already hard at work crafting her massively anticipated worldwide debut. And by the summer, “Call Me Maybe” was resting comfortably at #1 the Hot 100 for weeks in America, going on to become the second-best selling single of 2012. (For now, anyway–watch your wig, Gotye.)

At a point, “Call Me Maybe” became the biggest song in the world, leading to the inevitable follow-up doubt: With a song so unbelievably massive, would Carly Rae go on to simply become a one-hit wonder?

To answer that, there’s Kiss, a sweet, sugar-coated “absolutely fucking not” served on a platter of heart-shaped cookies, rainbows and smiles.

Kiss is a rock-solid collection of largely uptempo, vaguely J-Pop-tinged synth-pop ditties, with frequent highlights throughout–from the blissfully playful opener “Tiny Little Bows,” to the hopeful sparkle of “More Than A Memory,” to the starry-eyed “Guitar String / Wedding Ring,” which plays like a Taylor Swift song gone synth-pop. There’s not even a single dud in the bunch. Yes, that even applies to the ballads, including her charmingly soft-spoken “Beautiful” with Justin Bieber (which vaguely bites One Direction‘s “What Makes You Beautiful” lyrically, but it’s fine.)

With Scooter Braun at the helm, Jepsen’s list of collaborators–which started out modestly with the folkier productions by Canadian producer Ryan Leslie–expanded tenfold, resulting in a drool-worthy collection of pop’s most talented cast of characters: From songwriter Bonnie McKee, Owl City and LMFAO‘s Redfoo (and, amazingly, Tegan & Sara‘s Sara Quin), to production icons like Max Martin and Toby Gad. (And of course, Miss Jepsen’s BF, the talented singer-songwriter, Matthew Koma.)

“Curiosity” is perhaps the album’s most obvious representation of Carly’s overnight transition into superstardom: What was once a sparse, sparkly delight filled with retro synthesizers and a folk twang when it was released on the singer’s Canadian EP back in February, now appears as a robust power-pop masterpiece full of majestic strings and a striding pulse, thanks to the capable production skills of Cory Enemy, Mighty Mike and pop legend, Dallas Austin.

Apart from the record’s obvious standouts, including “Call Me Maybe” and current single, the ’80’s-tastic “This Kiss,” it seems a Jepsen scorned is the most musically fruitful: “Turn Me Up,” specifically, is an emancipation anthem of mammoth pop proportions. “I’m breaking up with you, you’re breaking up on me/You kiss me on the phone, and I don’t think it reaches,” Jepsen cries out on the chant-ready pre-chorus, leading into an explosion of sparkling, synthesized vibrations: “Turn me up, turn me on!” Jepsen purrs. It’s staggeringly infectious, in a way that’s very much on par with “Call Me Maybe.”

“Tonight I’m Getting Over You,” the Max Martin-produced pop monster of the album, follows along a similar theme: “No more crying to get me through, I’ll keep dancing ’til the morning with somebody new/Tonight I’m getting over you,” Jepsen solemnly swears before being drowned out by in a maddening explosion of House-drenched beats. It’s the perfect application of the radio’s love affair with Guetta/Harris-based House and pure pop songcraft, resulting in an unbelievably radio-ready anthem. (It’s also completely Ke$ha, sans the gin, glitter and suspicious stains.)

To that end, don’t expect the singer behind songs like “Guitar String/Wedding Ring” to dabble in PG-13 territory anywhere on this record. Although she’s nearly 27 years old, Jepsen keeps it thoroughly kid-friendly–in a way that feels neither lame nor transparently fake. And really, there’s something refreshing about the fact that Jepsen has a few years under her belt in the industry, rather than being a 14-year-old Teen Disney princess on the brink of a breakdown. (An actual role model for the kids? Blasphemy!)

And despite the oft-gleeful production, it isn’t all ponies and rainbows: The Toby Gad-produced “Your Heart Is A Muscle,” the album’s closing moment (on the standard edition, anyway), sees Jepsen flaunting her truly superior songwriting skills. “You’re a real good listener, but you don’t have much to say/Wake up, you won’t pick up the phone, whatever/You’re probably sleepin’, I hope we’re still okay,” Jepsen tenderly ponders to herself.

Kiss is the epitome of pop in its most pure, undiluted form. The album shares plenty of similarities with Katy Perry‘s similarly sparkly 2010 effort Teenage Dream, though if Carly Rae brings any specific moment in music to mind, it’s the early ’80’s revolution of perky dance-pop artists like Tiffany, Stacey Q and Madonna at her earliest. In fact, Kiss often plays like a 21st century take on the Queen of Pop’s 1983 debut–a time before dominatrix play, Kabbalah and Pussy Riot–when Madonna’s catalog only contained lovesick dance floor odes like “Lucky Star” and “Borderline.”

It’s the very definition of what those who don’t revel publicly in all things pop refer to as a “guilty pleasure”–an endlessly catchy collection of playful riffs and sugary-sweet lyricism that captures the lovey-dovey “forever young” sort of feeling that pop music is truly all about.

Above all, Kiss affirms that Carly Rae Jepsen ain’t going anywhere soon. So buy it, maybe.

Kiss was released on September 18. (iTunes)