The ’80s-pop renaissance that periodically seizes the Top 40 appeared to reach its zenith last fall, when a certain country star whose initials are T.S. transitioned to bona fide diva on an album named after the year the Berlin Wall fell. But Carly Rae Jepsen, whose 2012 viral hit “Call Me Maybe” was so ubiquitous that even President Obama was once asked about it in an interview, might actually be the neon decade’s most dedicated student. Jepsen’s third studio album, E•mo•tion, is full of whizzing, industrial-strength pop songs that raid the musical closets of Cyndi Lauper and Prince, establishing the 29-year-old Canadian songwriter as more than a one-hit wonder.
Some credit must go to Jepsen’s top-notch collaborators, who include the Cardigans’ Peter Svensson (who now crafts hits for Ariana Grande and the Weeknd) and “Chandelier” singer Sia (who takes a break from her usual power ballads to write the roller-rink-ready “Boy Problems”). Yet it’s Jepsen who provides the beating heart of a record dense with stainless-steel beats. Her lyrics fixate on the nerve-racking early stages of romance, and she finds ample and compelling material between nascent crushes and defined relationships. Jepsen might as well have called the record Sex•u•al Ten•sion, because these songs are fueled by it.
That may come as a surprise to some listeners. The unrelenting cheer of “Call Me Maybe,” coupled with her popularity among the Justin Bieber set (the two share a manager), gave Jepsen the reputation of a schoolgirl living in a chaste, PG universe. (Her 2014 Broadway stint as Cinderella probably didn’t help.) How much of this Jepsen courts is up for debate, but she keeps things from getting too saccharine by showing off an unexpectedly mature side. Over a stomach-lurching bass line on “Gimmie Love,” Jepsen frets over grownup desires: “Gimmie touch/’Cause I want what I want/Do you think that I want too much?”
Her sometimes cheesy lyrics can be easy targets. Detractors declared lead single “I Really Like You” the downfall of pop because it uses the word really 67 times. (“I really really really really really really like you,” goes the chorus. That’s six of them right there.) Never mind that these people aren’t burning copies of the Beatles’ equally repetitive “All You Need Is Love” in the streets–E•mo•tion’s pleasures are simple but not stupid. Jepsen knows that the lowest-concept songs can pack the biggest emotional wallop, like the opener, “Run Away With Me.” With a surging chorus and retro saxophone riff, it’s more euphoric than Jepsen’s breakout hit, but it likely won’t be as huge.
“Call Me Maybe” is the rare song that comes around once in a career. Instead of topping it, Jepsen did herself one better: she made a mainstream pop album that has nary a skippable track. When the songs are this good, that feels like the rarer feat.
This appears in the August 31, 2015 issue of TIME.
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