Album Review: Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated Side B
She’s come a long way as an artist since “Call Me Maybe.”
This is what my mother says, in a Facebook comment, after I’ve shared a link to the song, “Heartbeat,” one of 12 tracks from Carly Rae Jepsen’s surprise release Dedicated Side B, a collection of additional material recorded during the sessions for Dedicated, her 2019 effort that was, as it happens, released exactly a year prior.
And yes, of course, Jepsen, now 34, has come along way from the Canadian pop music1 obscurity she was able to propel herself out of with the internationally ubiquitous 2012 single, “Call Me Maybe.”
But in response, all I can say is, “‘Call Me Maybe’ is a bop, though.”
And it is. Of course it is. Even as ‘overplayed’ as it may have been during the summer of 2012—it’s tie-in to that year’s summer Olympics certainly didn’t help how inescapable it was. But it’s status as ‘a bop’ isn’t even subjective—it is, objectively, an incredibly well put together pop song.
Earlier in the day, two hours after Jepsen announced the release of Dedicated Side B, I found myself on one of of the computers in a back office at work, both actually finishing up something work related, but also frantically trying to pre-order the album—dismayed to find that the limited edition (and signed) vinyl had already sold out2, and settling for a consolation prize of a compact disc.
My boss3 came around the corner to tell me she was taking her morning break, and I explained, “Cool. I’ll get back to work as soon as I finish ordering this new Carly Rae.” Another one of our co-workers, sitting at a computer near mine, seemed admittedly confused by what we were talking about, and said she had no idea who Carly Rae Jepsen is.
We explained that “Call Me Maybe” was probably her most well known song, and after this was met with even more confusion, my boss sang a little bit of the song’s iconic refrain; our co-worker practically recoiled in her chair. “Oh,” she said. “That song.”
“Carly Rae is so much more than just ‘Call Me Maybe,’” I was quick to interject, perhaps sounding a bit too defensive.
And she is. Of course she is. Originally penned as a folk song in 2011, “Call Me Maybe” gained attention once it caught the ears of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez; released as part of Jepsen’s Curiosity EP, and then later, her full-length Kiss, both issued in 2012, Jepsen, as a performer, could have become a one-hit wonder—three additional singles were issued from the record, but none of them had the kind of wild, unheard of success as “Call Me Maybe.”
In the wake of “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen, as a singer and performer, didn’t want to try to match its success, of even try to surpass it. She knew that simply wasn’t possible, so she, smartly, took her time, and returned three years later with the slick, bombastic, and bright electro-infused pop of E•MO•TION—commercially, it ‘underperformed,’ but through the album’s sales (or what could be considered a ‘lack of them’) Jepsen, perhaps partially unintentionally, rebranded herself as a critical favorite, and more importantly, an indie-pop darling.
Five years go, when writing a review4 of E•MO•TION, I refer to its first five tracks as a run of songs that are ‘unfuckwithable.’5 You could almost say the same thing about specific moments from its follow up, Dedicated, released four years later (again, Jepsen likes to take her time, and get it right, and it shows.) And you could most definitely say the same thing about Dedicated Side B—at times heartbreaking, introspective, gorgeous, and even sultry, it’s an almost flawless, compelling, and infectious collection of bright, glossy, energetic pop music, thoughtfully sequenced in such a way that makes it—and I hesitate slightly to say this—more successfully executed of an album, overall, than its predecessor.
I’m uncertain now, a year later, why I didn’t write some kind of verbose review, singing the praises of Dedicated. For as many things as I do remember, or can recall with such ease, trying to piece together where I was, and what I was working on (and possibly working through) a year ago, presents a challenge.
In retrospect, spending the last year, off and on, listening to Dedicated (maybe more so now within the last few months), I realize that it, subjectively, is not as immediate of an album as E•MO•TION is, if that makes sense. Yes, it is still a very bright, Technicolor pop record, full of enormous, sing-a-long moments and infectious rhythms that you can’t help but dance or flail around to—but overall, beginning to end, it burns a little slower, and it needs a little more time to find its pacing.
For every album I write a review of, there are countless ones that I won’t. That’s never the intent, of course. I make a list, I listen to the albums intently, but time gets away from me. I get overwhelmed with the time it takes to put these together, how ambitious6 they become, and realize I don’t have all of the time in the world to set aside to only write about music. There are always something else—chores, work, trying to ‘relax,’7 etc.
If I remember correctly, there was a handful of things that may have kept me away from writing something about Dedicated—at the time, in May of 2019, there were some changes at work, and that meant I was assuming some additional responsibilities. I had also spent a large portion of the month wading through a very sprawling piece about The National’s just released album I am Easy to Find, and was still finding my way how to secure guests, record, and edit episodes of the podcast I had launched at the beginning of the year.
My fragile mental health also, as always, plays a large part in how much time I can commit to sitting down and writing something thoughtful—and in May, 2019, I think I was also really trying to manage some physical pain as well, with an ongoing lower back problem8 that, by the spring, had reached a very lengthy point of pain unwilling to recede.
I have a specific memory attached to Dedicated—my wife and I drove to Illinois9 the weekend after Mother’s Day, to visit my mom, and I had put the album on the antiquated, second hand iPod we kept in the car. Occasionally, when I’d copy files over, not all of an album would transfer (a sign that the thing was on its last legs), and I feel like as we coasted out of a small town in rural Wisconsin, listening to Dedicated, it stopped midway through, only having copied, like less than the first half of the record onto the device. A gaffe like that should not have deterred me from finishing the album on my own time and writing something about it, but as we sat in silence for a moment before I asked my wife to find another album to listen to, or figure out why it had stopped after so few songs, I realized this was my missed opportunity to sit with the album, and at least get a feel for it, uninterrupted.
The most impressive thing that Jepsen does on Dedicated Side B arrives with its third and fourth tracks, which are, inherently, fun house mirrored reflections of another—more or less the same lyrics, juxtaposed against two drastically different arrangements, setting very different tonality.
How horny of a record is this—a question, albeit a little blunt, one must ask before we go any further. Like, how horny, or sexually charged, or sexually frustrated, or sensual, or erotic, is pop music? It’s a sliding scale, with some being more overt than others—recently, I just realized how desperately horny the lyrics to Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” are.
Jepsen has never been a ‘wholesome’ pop singer, but her lyrics, since the days of E•MO•TION have more or less been suggestive at best, sultry, and a little sensual. There are times when it is a little more obvious than others—“I wanna do bad things to you!,” she exclaims loudly on the refrain to Dedicated’s “Want You in My Room” (what else would you expect from a song with that title, though?)
Dedicate Side B is a diverse batch of tunes, but the conceit at many of them is love and lust, and the messy place in the middle where the Venn diagram of those emotions collides, and it is very apparent on the double shot of “Felt This Way” and “Stay Away.”
Rearranging similar lyrics, Jepsen provides a night and day contrast between both songs, with one being a slinking, slow burning plea, and the other being an all-out banger that has you headed for the dance floor.
“Felt This Way,” the first to arrive out of the pair, is the more reserved, structurally speaking, with a little more playfulness in the way Jepsen’s vocals jauntily bounce around within the arrangement, and a little less blatant about its sensuality—trying its best to remain fun, and a little lighter, in its tone, especially during the song’s verses, slipping into big, swooning energy during the enormous refrain.
Aside from the drastically different arrangements and presentation between “Felt This Way” and “Stay Away,” with the two songs sharing a bulk of the same lyrics, the other difference that is quite noticeable is what lyrics the refrains are built around. In “Felt This Way,” Jepsen uses phrasing she never chooses to return to within the next song; in “Stay Away,” the refrain is what was used as the ‘pre-chorus’ in the song prior.
While “Felt This Way” is fun and light, it’s the juxtaposition of the two songs that really makes this a moment on the record that is worth paying this much attention to, specifically the way the oscillating, howling synthesizers come blaring in at the beginning of “Stay Away.” It’s also a neat trick, when listening to Dedicated Side B for the first time, to realize you are listening to a different song with recycled, slightly altered lyrics. And even when the surprise of that first time wears off, there’s still a bit of a thrilling feeling in the space of these two tracks, knowing the kind of complementary and contrasting energy that is created.
What Carly Rae Jepsen does best, arguably, is huge pop music like this—go for broke enormity that is too big, too infectious, and too bright to fail, and “Stay Away” is one of those moments, which is why it’s a standout track—even removed from the context of its counterpart.
Something else that Jepsen excels at, but opts not to do all that often, is steering into what borders on being a ‘ballad’—maybe that isn’t the right word, because that often comes with dramatic pretense, but on Dedicated Side B, there are two specific tracks that find her working within a reserved, pensive, and even somber environment, resulting in two additional outstanding, memorable moments on the album.
Splitting Dedicated Side B in half, “Heartbeat,” lyrically, finds Jepsen heading into a surprisingly dark place with her songwriting—it’s still about the dichotomy between love and lust, but within that, she turns things inward into places of self-doubt. “Thinking that I need you to go now, ‘cause this could really get out of hand,” she begins. “I’m hiding things I don’t wanna show now, ‘cause I don’t know if you’re ready for that.”
Within that confusion of what ‘love’ is (“I was busy sleeping, sleeping with you—I never thought I’d feel this way, but I do,” she coos”), she really pushes things to a surprisingly real, very emotional place. “I don’t want to tell you anything bout me, ‘cause everything about you is speeding up my heartbeat,” she sings in the song’s refrain; then, later on, in the song’s bridge, phrasing that, much to my surprise, made me feel incredibly seen and attacked—something that I was simply not anticipating from a Carly Rae Jepsen song: “I don’t know if you should hear this, ‘cause it’s a mess inside my head. Maybe you should go instead.”
No pop album during this era of music would be complete without something produced by go-to impresario Jack Antonoff. Originally gaining fame with the project ‘fun.,’ he also issued records under his own vanity project Bleachers, and earned the most notoriety as a producer, arranger, and co-writer, most recently working with Taylor Swift on a bulk of Lover, Lana Del Rey on Norman Fucking Rockwell, and with the upcoming Dixie Chicks album, Gaslighter.
Co-written and produced by Antonoff, and credited with Bleachers as a ‘featured guest artist,’ buried near the end of Dedicated Side B is “Comeback,” perhaps the album’s most personally triumphant—and showing that you don’t have to push the sonic limits towards exuberance to make something that becomes an anthem.
There’s a fascinating energy that rides throughout “Comeback.” It’s not jaunty, because the song never reaches that kind of level of enthusiasm. But it bounces along in a very restrained, yet wildly powerful way. It, like “Heartbeat,” finds Jepsen in a very pensive frame of mind, though here she’s making a clear change, which is the main reason this becomes such a powerful, personal moment on the album.
“I’m at war with myself,” she begins as the song unfolds underneath her vocals. “We go back to my place. Take my makeup off—show you my best disguise.” The song works its best, and most emotionally, as she arrives in the later verses, where her voice is blended together with that of Antonoff’s (he’s spent so much time behind the production boards, I actually forgot he sings, too) in a way that is both surprisingly gorgeous and mildly haunting. Then, there is the song’s pivotal moment, in the refrain: “I don’t know what I’m feeling, but I believe I was thinking about making a comeback—back to me.”
A year after E•MO•TION was released, Jepsen celebrated by issuing a similar companion album—an EP, rather than another full-length, E•MO•TION Side B featured a handful of songs that could have found their way onto the album proper and held their own against its finest moments. These gifts of supplemental material show that not only does Jepsen have a knack for collaborative songwriting and creating slick, fun pop music at an impressive, prolific rate, but that she’s also a smart self-editor. Could Dedicated have been released as a double album last year? Sure, it could have. A double LP is no longer the financial kiss of death it used to be in the days when music was primarily consumed through physical means—a lengthy album to download, or stream, is just a drop in the bucket of digital content waiting to find its way into your algorithm or playlists; and some artist have even been accused of inflating their streaming numbers by intentionally issuing sprawling albums that could have been generously trimmed down.
Could Dedicated have been an even more enormous pop statement than it already was by releasing it as a double album? Sure, it could have been. But Jepsen, seemingly, kept this specific batch of 12 tracks aside as a surprise—the kind of surprise that, believe it or not, seems to be more thoughtfully sequenced and structured as a whole than the ‘real’ album. Maybe it’s the way that “Felt This Way” and “Stay Away” are placed back to back, maybe it’s the way she bends the tone and pacing by dropping in slowly simmering, pensive jams in between the all out bangers. Maybe it’s because I have finally spent so much time with Dedicated that its admitted unevenness is less of an obstacle to beginning to end listening, and that this seems almost like smooth sailing in comparison.
Dedicated Side B is not a perfect pop album, but it comes damn near close, and when your b-sides are better than some artist’s a-sides, that speaks volumes about the kind of performer and songwriter you are. It opens with the bright, and huge “This Love Isn’t Crazy,”10 finding Jepsen singing through the same metallic, hollow sounding distortion that she uses on Dedicated’s opening song, the mysterious “Julien.” But while “Julien” was moody, with Jepsen ruminating on a love that is no more, “This Love Isn’t Crazy” is gigantic—the sheer Technicolor scope of the way the verses serve only to build up to such an explosive bright refrain, really sets the tone for the shape of things to come, and the kind of bombastic, ‘everybody get your fucking ass on the dance floor right now’ energy this album, and Jepsen herself, can have.
Five years ago, I said the initial run of E•MO•TION’s first five tracks was ‘unfuckwithable,’ and even if there isn’t something that I specifically felt the need to highlight, or breakdown track by track with Dedicated Side B, the run leading up “Heartbeat” is untouchable and borderline flawless. Even when it doesn’t ‘work,’ or even when it loses its momentum and direction a little after “Comeback,” it still works, and is supported by all of these stellar, perfect pop moments.
The thing that I have come to realize about pop music is this—it’s going to either be very ‘of this moment,’ or it’s going to be fucking timeless, and become a deeply embedded part of your DNA, whether you realize it or not. That’s what I realized when I fully gave in to the music of Britney Spears, realizing that even tough I was a sullen teenage boy in the late 1990s, avoiding ‘pop’ music as much as I could, those songs are a part of me, and I chose to no longer try to outrun the escapism of just how inherently fun, and well constructed they are.
I was a fan of E•MO•TION upon its release, and I’ve come to hold it even more closely over the last five years, specifically in the last two years, returning to it regularly. Jepsen, in 2020 (or even in 2015 for that matter) may not be as ubiquitous as she was with “Call Me Maybe,” but putting it casually, she still has bops, and she knows when to play her hand. “Call Me Maybe” represents a moment in time, but with albums like E•MO•TION and Dedicated, Jepsen has shown the growth that pushes her from being a pop performer to a pop ‘artist,’ and the kind of artist Dedicated Side B pushes her bold, refreshing pop statements even further, to wildly energetic, fun, charismatic, and thoughtful places. Rarely is there an album that I could say, without hesitation, that it is an absolute joy to listen to from beginning to end; this is one of those albums.
1- Turns out that Jepsen was a finalist on “Canadian Idol” in the mid-2000s, leading to her 2008 debut release Tug of War—an album that doesn’t sound like it was recorded by a different artist completely, but it does sound, you know, different.
2- If you’re reading this and did not get to the pre-order in time for the vinyl edition that Jepsen was selling from her webstore, a Twitter user told me that Urban Outfitters is selling a colored vinyl variant. I didn’t bat an eyelash at buying this album twice within 48 hours. It is, objectively, that good.
3- Shout out to the homie Andrea who sometimes reads these and when she does always reads to the end for the footnotes.
4- I don’t often go back and read old things I’ve written (especially reviews) but I did skim my review of E•MO•TION, and sure, I said some nice things about it, but five years ago I was not the writer I am now, and the blog had only been a thing for two years at that point. It is a little cringey how rough and casual the writing is, and how I was okay with that at the time—like, I was totally fine with that being my ‘voice’ as a music writer, and clearly was not taking myself as seriously as I do now. Also, the review is really short, and it’s tough to fathom a time when I wasn’t making these as verbose and obnoxious as I can.
5- I used to work with a woman named Gina. Shout out to Gina if you read this. You probably won’t. For some reason, though, one morning when we were working together, we started talking about Carly Rae, and she was surprised to learn that I was a) a music writer outside of my day job, but b) that I really liked Carly Rae Jepsen. I sent her a link to my review of E•MO•TION, and she was like, “I can’t believe you used the word ‘unfuckwithable’ in your review.”
6- As noted in the earlier footnote, it is wild for me to think about a time prior to 2019, when I was totally fine with putting down a few hundred words, or maybe even a thousand words, on an album and when thinking I was ‘done’ with a review or that I had explored everything I needed to about it. Is writing about music this —so ambitious that it can buckle its own weight—like, a good use of my time? That’s a question for the ages.
7- An aside that has nothing to do with CRJ. I am unable to ‘relax.’ I work five days a week, usually for nine hours a day. On my days off, I literally do not know what to do with myself, and I don’t see anything I do (writing, editing podcasts, etc) as things that are relaxing, but I’m working on trying to be okay with simply ‘just being.’ And that is really wild.
8- In case you care, I have a bulging disc in my spine, in my lower back. It is awful.
9- What I realized, after I had simply written that we drove to Illinois, is that during that time, I was wading through a very, very ambitious personal essay that I think totally collapsed under the fact that it was simply about too many ideas. I haven’t been able to really focus on a good personal essay since last summer, because while I guess I was okay with the conclusion I came to in the piece, I think it was confusing to some people, or they thought I was out here doing THE MOST, and it’s given me a bit of a…..complex.
10- An aside too difficult and tangential to shoehorn into this review: for the last few months I’ve had a real issue with the word ‘crazy’ being tossed around liberally. Especially now, during times of dat rona, it’s tough to hear people say, “It was a crazy day today.” It is an ableist slur, and I have gone out of my way at times to ask people close to me to stop using it. Anyway, what I have found is that the word ‘crazy’ is used a lot in pop music so it’s really fucking hard to escape it.