In 2012, Carly Rae Jepsen released Call Me Maybe, a song that describes an embryonic crush and embodies its molecular intensity. Strings make hairpin turns in the chorus, simulating the rhythms of nerves. “Before you came into my life I missed you so bad,” she sings, a lyric that seems to confuse time and space into an elastic blur.
On Friday Jepsen released a cover of Wham!’s Last Christmas. It re-engineers the song as a kind of crystalline R&B jam animated by snaps, but she also draws it into her emotional universe; it feels more anxious than the original, as if perched on a precipice. Because of Call Me Maybe’s hesitant intimacies, Jepsen is often characterized as a teenager, or as writing from a teenage perspective. In fact, she’s 29. But there’s something thoroughly adult in her ability to translate shapeless, excruciating feelings into nimble and precise words. They harmonise the heart and the nerves into a kind of captivating electric throb.
Jepsen writes pop music, and her subject is primarily love, but neither are conveyed in an entirely traditional way. Her music isn’t about projection or the arc of desire. It’s about atomically inhabiting the moment. No one is ever missed in Jepsen songs, because they’re always there, suspended in the manic superposition of a crush. The Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector tried to inhabit a similar moment in Água Viva. “Only the act of love – the limpid star-like abstraction of feeling – captures the unknown moment,” she wrote. “The instant hard as crystal and vibrating in the air ... the feeling is both immaterial and so objective that it seems to happen outside your body, sparkling on high, joy, joy is time’s material and the essence of the instant.”
In the same book she wrote, “You don’t understand music: you hear it. So hear me with your whole body.” It sounds like a Jepsen lyric.
The best song of 2012: Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe
About halfway through Jepsen’s set at Irving Plaza in New York last week, she sang When I Needed You, the final track on her 2015 album Emotion. The song’s end felt uncertain, stopping on the verge of another potential chorus, and the audience picked it up, singing an entire chorus back at Jepsen. “That was the best,” she said, blinking in disbelief.
In this and other ways her show felt more rock than pop; Irving Plaza is very narrowly organized, and its stage is lower in altitude than other venues, which conveys intimacy if not visibility. On occasion, through the venue’s strange, clouded, lopsided sound, the songs resembled distant echoes of themselves, but then the mix would seem to correct itself and every synth patch would throb with life. Throughout the show lights radiated behind Jepsen from straightened constellations, pulsing much as her songs themselves pulse: in compressed bursts of heat and intensity.
Like many pop songs before it, Warm Blood describes falling in love, but it sounds as if it’s measuring the event internally. It sonically embodies the central metaphor; we hear barely hear Jepsen’s voice at first, as if it’s struggling through a kind of cellular depth. “Warm blood feels good, I can’t control it anymore,” she sings. Bass vibrates. The drums seem to exhale. Jepsen’s voice changes, distorts, becomes elastic and slow. The song was co-written by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, and Jepsen’s blurred and melted vocal resembles the machine-produced flexibility of Ezra Koenig’s voice in Diane Young. “You catch me when I’m falling for you,” Jepsen sings. Falling for someone can feel like a rupture in space-time, toward which you are gravitationally pulled. Time becomes alternately dense and weightless; everything moves faster yet with more consequence. It can feel as if all of the blood in your body is slowly collapsing toward a distant, unknowable point.
If Jepsen writes a breakup song, like When I Needed You, it is from the confused, centrifugal core of the breakup, where every possibility, including staying together, seems optimal and symmetrical. “You come to me in dreams at night,” she sings, before adding, “I don’t want to work it out. I’m not going to work it out.”
“It’s about a relationship where everything was perfect,” she said at Irving Plaza. “But I was paralysed to change myself.”
Boy Problems doesn’t describe the boy or the problems; instead its perspective unfolds from a conversation between Jepsen and an exasperated friend. The title track of Emotion itself occurs somewhere beyond a breakup. “It’s about wanting somebody who was my ex to want me,” she said, and she performs this through a seductive collage of desire and simulated apathy. There’s also Tonight I’m Getting Over You from Kiss, her second album, which like most of her songs describes a liminal state. It’s a dark mirror of her nascent love songs. “We’re not lovers, but more than friends,” she sings, as the music behind her sculpts itself into a vertiginous shape.
A portion of the crowd seemed unfamiliar with the songs from Kiss, which is understandable. Kiss’s version of pop is more fluorescent and delirious than Emotion, whose songs, even as they describe uneasy emotional circumstances, have a kind of gravity to their design and performance. It’s a carefully engineered atmosphere, a small garden of anxieties. The aesthetic limits of 80s synth pop give the songs on Emotion a precision and discipline Kiss lacks. Incidentally, this is exactly where Kiss thrills. Tonight I’m Getting Over You’s structure is little more than a build and a collapse, a literal break up, and it’s euphoric; the floor opens up beneath you and you descend into a fluorescent ball-pit. Everyone in the crowd, even those unmoved by other songs from Kiss, pitched forward, and the space turns buoyant.
After Tonight, Jepsen sang Your Type, a more relaxed incarnation of the same anxious impulse. In August, during a short acoustic performance at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, she said it was about falling for a gay man. “But I still love you, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I love you, I didn’t mean to say what I said,” she sings. “I’m not the type of girl for you and I’m not going to pretend that I’m the type of girl you call more than a friend.” Behind her synths expand and fold into each other in kaleidoscopic sequence.
I’m 28 and I still feel like a teenager when I fall in love; it always feels as if I’ve been suddenly drawn into an invisible vortex which has compromised or enhanced every aspect of my life. I feel alternately anxious, calm, motivated, and consumed, but the feelings themselves matter less than the incredible mass they acquire.
I hear this mass in Jepsen’s songs, in the unfurling pink blossoms of synth, in the way she sings in a sort of cropped whisper, like she is always telling you a secret. When her lyrics drift out of sense it feels like they’re approaching the actual feeling. “I wanna make the best so you want more” she sings in All That, an elusive and shy slow jam whose delayed pulse resembles The Beautiful Ones by Prince. At Irving Plaza performed the song with its co-writer, Dev Hynes, who applied gentle filigrees of guitar to its hypnotic sway. The crowd drifted to the song almost oceanically. Jepsen’s songs are songs that you can easily find yourself in, or, more accurately, you can find versions of yourself in them, places you’ve been, and the people who’ve been there with you. She writes emotional landscapes.