In contemporary pop music, “b-sides” isn’t a term you hear very often. You hear all the time about radio singles, chart-topping hits, and snazzy hooks, and we’ve been hearing that kind of material from Carly Rae Jepsen lately. However, we were also blessed with a full-length album from her so good in 2015’s Emotion that it resultantly eliminated several strong cuts. But the blessings don’t stop, as Emotion: Side B proves that Jepsen’s not stopping either.
In fact, she’s just getting started.
During the Emotion creation process, the Canadian pop star whittled over 250 songs down to 40 songs. From there, she was unsurprisingly forced by her label narrow it down more. Eventually, after lots of what she called “pleasant arguing,” she landed with 12 songs on the regular release and five more on the deluxe edition. And the project was a critical success: Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-, AllMusic gave it four out of five stars, Rolling Stone was gracious enough to give it a whole three and a half out of five stars, and all of us here at Mind Equals Blown love it.
If anything, such acclaim suggests that the “babies” Jepsen was so reluctant to kill off early on were perhaps worth salvaging after all. Thankfully, too, many of them came to light last week — and they’re nearly on par with the ‘80s-styled pop prowess captured on last year’s full-length.
Opener “First Time” acts as a glamorous ray of sunshine through its mix of bass, percussion, and electronica elements. Following it, “Higher”, changes pace into the darker, moodier territory common throughout Emotion. It’s not surprising that these seven-plus minutes capture such variety, as they both used different writers and producers. Jepsen had a say in the writing of “First Time” along with Wayne Hector, Rami Yacoub, and Carl Falk, with the latter of the two also producing the song. Thus, it makes sense track one would feature so many intricacies, ranging across several decades of musical influences and layers upon layers of sheen. What could be described as “synth-funk”, the track’s irresistible dynamic — along with its lustrous chorus — helped make it her fifth-highest charting single back in March.
It’s obvious that the 12-track release of Emotion wouldn’t be enough for Jepsen, nor would a deluxe edition suffice. For a musician in her genre of choice, quality is a must, but the Vancouver native has been providing a ton of quantity as well. As a result, she’s making quite the resurgence.
But what she’s doing in this regard is still a tough draw for the style of music she plays, though. Making end-of-the-year lists is great, but singles lead to stronger commercial performance than albums. Just look at what 2011’s “Call Me Maybe” did for the then-26 year old. The love-at-first-sight teen pop ballad not only spent nine weeks at the top of the U.S. Billboard charts, but it also ended up being the sixth-highest selling digital single of all-time.
Sure, “Call Me Maybe” is a commercial outlier in Jepsen’s career, but it’s still a big part of it. Moving past it is a tough task for any musician, let alone a late 20s pop singer who could easily have shriveled into a one-hit wonder. Her revitalized relevance didn’t come from the creation of another chart-topper; instead, it involved a three-year passion project — and the recent release of its b-sides emphasizes both the effort and execution.
If you think about sustainability as a result of the 20-80 rule (20% of your customers make up 80% of your profits), then Jepsen’s playing the game with intelligence as well as artistic finesse. The 80% only know “Call Me Maybe”, and the other 20% have already bought Side B. Much of her devoted fanbase has stuck with her for the greater part of a decade, but added to that are her newest converts: listeners who have been starving for pop music with this much substance for years. It may mean more club than stadium shows, but it’s something that Jepsen favors for its “feeling of connection.”
Again, the 20% matters most.
But let’s not forget that any of the other seven b-sides could make it as singles as well. “Higher” contains more neon in comparison to its predecessor’s primarily sunny vigor, and it helps it hit harder. Of course, that’s what bright lights do to a dark night. Though it’s the only track Jepsen didn’t help write, she slides right into its groove anyway. Produced by Greg Kurstin, who’s known as the “consummate DIY producer,” his range of touches on the song give it the depth and focus for Jepsen to come in and be the icing on the cake. But she doesn’t simply provide a sugary topping; she also creates a whole other dimension of goodness.
Third track, “The One” mixes the directions of the first two songs together into a voluminous light-meets-dark affair. Like the colorful album cover, Jepsen bursts out of the blue-tinged verses with yet another blinding yellow chorus. “While cooking dinner, I wear your socks and slippers / It’s been a long, long day,” she goes on to explain in the second verse, with the relaxing cushion of her footwear matched by its musical smoothness. It’s rich in romantic wordplay, too, with the lyrics on this track — in addition to the first two — being more physical that the generalized language of songs like “Run Away with Me” and “Your Type”.
The last five songs feature 12 other writers who collaborated with Jepsen, along with nine producers, and all of their efforts are noticeable in some shape or form. Songs four and five, “Fever” and “Body Language”, rely on keyboard and synth to tell stories of relationships and breakups. Coursing alongside Jepsen’s pristine voice, the former reminds of the title of her 2015 full-length, loading up heart-wrenching sonic punches one-by-one throughout its three-minute run time. More prevalent on the latter is scattered experimentation, as echoed yells and electronic alterations make “Body Language” the freshest of the eight b-sides.
Even more so than the two songs leading up to it, “Cry” is an adequate representation of the thick emotion that helped give her most recent studio album its name. The thick feeling coursing throughout her new material brings it to life, and a lot of it can be traced back to Jepsen’s love for sad songs. “There’s nothing better than a beautifully sad song,” she said in an interview last year. If being moved by her father’s covers of James Taylor and Leonard Cohen did anything for the pop singer, it gave her the understandings to move others in a similar manner. Expressing heartbreak through vivid storytelling and pop standards may come as a contradiction. Rather, it makes Jepsen’s tunes “happy-sad,” and in the best way possible.
The happy-sad of “Cry” means Jepsen’s high-pitched vocals and their atmospheric production showcase a smooth, delectable delivery while also revealing a tender figure behind it all. “I never really know when he’ll be leaving / And even with hello I hear goodbye,” she murmurs. Breakups serve as a lot of the inspiration behind her songs, but they’re performed in a manner that brings beauty out of the sadness of her situations.
In fact, the track contains so much beauty that it could easily have been released as a stand-alone offering. However, the Carly Rae Jepsen we’ve seen over the past year or so focuses on quantity just as much as quality, and her balance of the two is immaculate. Not only does she have the confidence in herself to release eight secondary cuts, but she’s also shown that she has the capacity to do so.
“Store” and “Roses” finish out Side B with intricate textures. In “Store” it’s the instrumentation that truly shines. That’s because the track changes pace multiple times without losing grip on its core identity. ‘80s-styled key hold-downs give way to drums and claps as the song rises into its chorus, and — if it wasn’t before — it’s obvious now that Jepsen has found comfort in the groove created by her counterparts. She’s made sure her music is more than her own ego, and it required listening to others and utilizing that give-and-take. It seems only fitting, then, that she wrote the closer with fellow British Columbian Ryan Stewart, who worked with her on previous hit “Curiosity” and produced her vocals on “Good Time”. The collaboration proves fruitful as always, with the singer unleashing her vocal charm in front of a soothing electronic base.
If the eight songs that make up Emotion: Side B signify anything, it’s that Carly Rae Jepsen is beyond the status of a pop queen. She’s transcending titles, and doing so by making listeners dance, sing along, and feel something — all at the same time. If there was any fear that Top 40 was moving more toward the first two elements and losing the third in a haze of half-hearted lines that sell, the Canadian star has put us all at ease.
Jepsen has put her passion and knack for substantive writing to good use by teaming up with a variety of writers and producers, and that’s what made the artistry displayed on both sides of Emotion such a force to be reckoned with. It would be easy to call her approach a comfortable risk, considering not every mainstream artist has a hit as big as “Call Me Maybe” to fall back on. But on the other side of things, you could argue that it’s quite the feat that she’s been able to move away from becoming a one-hit wonder, instead claiming the identity of an artist who can sell both a- and b-sides.
And yet, after all she’s done over the last few years, she’s still not stopping. As she introduced her eight newest tracks to the world, she hinted at another full-length in the near future: “So yeah…new album on the way…but here’s something to hold yah over until then.”
Oh, this will definitely hold us over, Carly. Don’t you worry about that.
Featured Image Credit: Maarten De Boer, Getty Images