Tuesday, May 21, 2019

album review: 'dedicated' by carly rae jepsen

I'll admit to being surprised it took this long to get this album.

And sure, some of this comes of a question of momentum, which for a cult act like Carly Rae Jepsen might not matter - and I'll admit it's strange to refer to her as a cult act when in 2012 'Call Me Maybe' was nearly the biggest song of the year but seems to have mostly vanished from even a more nostalgic conversation. But I remember actually being ahead of the curve when it came to E.MO.TION, where I covered it as a fan who was fond of her earliest stuff and then saw the hipster crowd embrace her in spades, which carried into her short follow-up the next year on Side B. And then... well, the singles kept coming and the hype was there, but the reception felt increasingly lukewarm, and it wasn't like mainstream pop was in the best of places for the sort of crossover she probably deserved earlier. So when I started hearing the mixed reception for this album, I'll admit to being worried, especially with no credits from Josh Ramsay or Devonte Hynes. Still, I'm still a fan and I wanted to believe she could stick the landing, so what did we get from Dedicated?

You know, the more listens I've given Dedicated, I feel like Carly Rae Jepsen is in an impossible situation with this project: dealing with a compromised mainstream pop situation without obvious sources of influence - influences that I should add were very strident on her last project - and with sky-high expectations of quality, she was likely forced with a choice. On the one hand, she could stick with the same sounds and influences and fall in the same trap CHVRCHES did while probably still being pretty successful... or fly into the experimental fringe, risk a mixed critical reception, and potentially compromise her cult following. And with Dedicated, it seems like she tried to thread the needle: it's certainly more experimental and 'modern' in terms of synthpop, but the influences are still there if you know what to look for and even a few stabs at satisfying a fickle mainstream. What I'm trying to say is that Dedicated can't help but feel like it's trying to satisfy too many people with a few too many cooks taking away from what Carly Rae Jepsen can deliver at her best, flabby as a whole but oddly undercooked in patches, but still with enough raw quality coursing through it so while it might seem underwhelming to some audiences, I think it's a step that she might have needed to take.

But one thing's important to acknowledge from the start: if you're expecting a lyrical innovation or step to push this album towards greatness, you're going to be left wanting. Don't get me wrong, I like the slew of genuinely sweet love songs that she loads this album with, but if you're asking for something to shoot for the stars for big drama like 'Run Away With Me' or even something that plays for the over-the-top girlish exuberance of 'I Really Like You', you're not really going to get that. The relationships on this album, when they are here, they feel more stable and assured, and while Carly Rae Jepsen is an expert in making lovesick yearning sound buoyant, more than ever there are limitations in her lyrical range that prevent her from going farther. I might love the frustrated exasperation of 'The Sound' in how she might want more, but her attempt to sell jealousy on 'I'll Be Your Girl' is utterly unconvincing, and the underlying core of sweetness doesn't quite let 'Right Words Wrong Time' work. Not so much innocence - the sensuality is implied but it is there and appreciated - but there's a good-natured cheer and purity to these tunes that actually manages to make the sensitivity of how she's not ready for a new love affair on 'Happy Not Knowing' feel like more than just a friendzone song. And a big part of this is vocal delivery and production, where there's absolutely a tilt towards thicker vocal layering, slightly more intricate harmonies, more cooing and less belting, and when the production embraces slightly softer synth embellishments or lets the grooves feel a bit smoother, it's a welcome shift. This doesn't excuse the moments where she gets pitchy, like on the hook of 'Feels Right', but it does make sense.

But if you're looking for a reason why that pitchiness comes in, as well as some tinny vocal pickups and layering, we have to get into the larger conversation about the production. And I've been pondering the best way to describe the choice of grooves and tones that comprise the sound, but the truth is that it's a mixed bag, with synths carrying the blaring tone of early CHVRCHES with the oscillating wobble and spare support of the last SOPHIE album, albeit not mastered in a way that makes me want to break things. And that's not counting the songs where the sonic influence is blatant, like how the groove of 'Feels Right' sounds like a Marianas Trench song circa 2015, or how Jack Antonoff's production makes 'Want You In My Room' sound like a forgotten 2014 Bleachers song and one of the best cuts here! On the flip side, though, you get tunes like 'Everything He Needs' with its liberal interpolation of a Harry Nilsson song written for the early 80s Popeye movie that is just as shrill, misguided, and clunky as that film, and that's before you get the spare drippy snap behind 'Right Words Wrong Time' that's a blatant radio push, or the weird blurry ska and funk blend that weirdly feels reminiscent of Trench-era twenty one pilots. But most of the songs rely on a pulsating low-end synth with various degrees of textured percussion, glittery embellishment, and an open question of how well the vocals will be able to ride off of it, and if I were to highlight a significant misstep, it'd often come here. Simply put, if you're looking to fuse Carly Rae Jepsen's breathy tones into a compelling mix, you want tones that compliment them and support them, not so blaring that you need to crank up the mids and highs in the mix and make her sound tinny to cut through, especially when it might be done at the expense of the color in other instrumental tones like the guitars or bass. But a larger issue might come in the structure of some of these songs, because many of these tunes have the hooks to earn a bigger climax coming off a bridge or synth solo... and then they don't happen, which leaves songs like 'Automatically In Love' and even 'Want You In My Room' feel like they're missing something. And when you hear how many songs Carly Rae Jepsen wrote for this album, you're left wondering if refinement and expansion might have been the answer over quantity.

But as a whole... yes, this album does not have the highs of her best work - 'Want You In My Room' and 'The Sound' are not 'Run Away With Me' or 'All That', no question, and with a song like 'Everything He Needs' it does have one of her lows. But I suspect this project is necessary if only because it cements Carly Rae Jepsen as a synthpop act who'll have the flexibility to experiment and flirt with ideas while still having a solid enough core, and given how EMOTION: Side B gave us more from the recording sessions of that album, I'm curious what else might come from this, likely in a tighter package. As it is... eh, extremely light 7/10 and recommended for fans, but I do have other pop-friendly acts with tighter grooves I'd probably revisit before this that are stronger from this year. Still, good stuff, I'll take it.

No comments:

Post a Comment