This morning, Carly Rae Jepsen released a new album called Dedicated Side B (stream here). Amidst rumors of fresh music, the pop star had been teasing fans with its release all week, including this video of a simulated chat posted to Twitter and Instagram yesterday.
Long-time readers will recognize that the chat text is displayed with typeface called Silkscreen, which I designed back in 1999, an era of small monitors and even smaller fonts.
Back in the day, Britney Spears used Silkscreen on her website, and now it’s come (sorta) full circle with Jepsen. Silkscreen pops up here and there every few months, and I’m glad to see people are still getting some use out of it. It was retro when I made it and now its retro-ness is retro. Culture is fun!
Jepsen sent her fans into a frenzy of speculation with a video posted to her Instagram and Twitter on Sunday, celebrating the anniversary of Dedicated. The clip closed with a flash of just the letter "B," which fans took as a hint that — just as she'd followed 2015's E•MO•TION with E•MO•TION Side B in 2016 — the artist had new music to share. She more or less confirmed those theories with another video Wednesday evening.
Like her previous "B-sides" collection, the album feels like much more than a compilation of outtakes from her last release. Dedicated Side B could have easily functioned as a stand-alone record, with a fresh batch of exuberant, lovestruck choruses to get lodged in your head all summer. Early standouts on that front include "This Is What They Say," "Stay Away" and "This Love Isn't Crazy").
There are also a few more chilled-out tracks, like "Heartbeat," "I Don't Hate California After All" and "Comeback," which includes a rare guest feature: Bleachers, the project of omnipresent producer and songwriter Jack Antonoff, joins the track on backing vocals.
Receiving a new collection of Jepsen songs while in quarantine is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it can be frustrating to listen to her always perfect dance pop on the eve of a summer likely to be short on dance parties. On the other, no one makes music for dancing like nobody's watching or singing along in the shower like Carly Rae Jepsen.
It’s a surprise album from Carly Rae Jepsen! Sort of. As Carly admitted in her tweet, she’s bad at keeping secrets. Which is why the (what do you call CRJ fans? Jepsens? Emotions? Call me babies? Hold on, I’m going to look this up….) jepsies have known about the arrival of Dedicated: Side B for some time now.
I like Dedicated: Side B a lot. Even more than I liked the original album. It’s sonically more diverse, and it guides the viewer through a tighter emotional journey than its parent album. When I wrote about Dedicated, I thought it was good but not great. A year later, only two of the songs are still on my playlist. With Side B, I can already tell which ones are going to be permanent playlist fixtures. “Heartbeat” has me in my feels, “This Love Isn’t Crazy” has a spine-tingling drop, and “Now I Don’t Hate California After All” makes me still believe that we might have a normal summer. I also can’t stop dancing to “Fake Mona Lisa” and “This is What They Say”.
When Emotion: Side B came out, it was received well by critics, but it was also seen as a continuation of Emotion. Pitchfork noted that some of the songs seemed to be more like first drafts of the work for Emotion. We know that CRJ’s process is to make hundreds of songs and pick only a few to be on the album. Dedicated: Side B is an album in its own right, but it’s also made up of the offcuts from Dedicated. The honourable mentions of the process. The ones that didn’t quite make it. So why does it sound better?
I think there are two reasons. One is the hype. Like Lorde said in her letter, the anticipation can often be the best part. But waiting can also build expectation, adding pressure to the final work. Dedicated came four years after Emotion, and three years after Emotion: Side B. Jepsies were eagerly waiting for their queen to follow up her artistic success, and the pressure was on. CRJ also chose to release not one, not two, but four of the songs as singles prior to the album’s release. As I said then, “as far as building hype goes, I’m not sure revealing a quarter of your album prior to its release is the best way to go.” So Dedicated was simultaneously too hyped up and not hyped enough before its release.
Dedicated: Side B was a surprise (at least on paper). And it’s only been a year since her last album. (She was also featured on Y2K’s viral TikTok hit Lalala in a remix in October of last year.) That means that while the anticipation was low, so was the expectation and the pressure to succeed. Perhaps without that pressure, Carly was free to be more relaxed with the songs she chose for this album, choosing to be more daring and creative.
Jepsen, the Canadian pop singer who enjoyed a massive worldwide smash with “Call Me Maybe” in 2012, once seemed destined to become a one-hit wonder. Maybe for most people, that’s exactly what she is; “Call Me Maybe” is still the only Jepsen song you can be certain any random stranger will know, despite her Owl City collab “Good Time” also hitting the top 10. Yet with 2015’s E•MO•TION, Jepsen launched into a new career phase.
Musically, it wasn’t much of a pivot. She continued to specialize in sparkling, heart-on-sleeve pop music that could theoretically thrive on Top 40 radio, except it thrived in an entirely different context: Jepsen vanished from the radio and instead became a critically beloved cult favorite. E•MO•TION was a mainstay on year-end lists — this site ranked it all the way up at #3, below Grimes and Kendrick Lamar but above Vince Staples, Sufjan Stevens, and everyone else. The following summer, Jepsen played Pitchfork Music Festival, essentially opening for indie rock bands Beach House and Broken Social Scene.
The low-stakes pleasure is a big part of Jepsen’s appeal. Even as she has transitioned from singles artist to album artist, her songs have continued to be self-contained stories, not chapters in some larger narrative. She has managed to avoid scandal and has kept the twists and turns of her personal life to herself. Even when her songs are inspired by her own experiences, you never get the sense they’re supposed to function as commentary on her life, crammed with subtext to be mined out by stans like Lost fanatics deciphering Easter eggs or The Sopranos viewers debating what happened in the final scene. That kind of hypermodern pop stardom has its allure, but it can be exhausting — whereas freedom from the weight of extracurricular baggage makes Jepsen’s songs soar higher. It’s just really good pop music, the kind that can tingle your spine and amplify your emotions four minutes at a time.
It’s not that Jepsen has no persona — quite the opposite, in fact. She’s a distinctive presence with a carefully honed aesthetic, and she’s been laying claim to her lane ever since E•MO•TION popped off. In her music, she often comes off like a plucky sitcom protagonist whose depth is often underestimated because of her optimistic outlook and fundamentally cheery demeanor. Think The Mary Tyler Moore Show rebooted for millennials or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt without the traumatic backstory. Or maybe, given the standalone quality of each track, she’s less like one character than an actress who specializes in a certain type of role, like Audrey Hepburn or Meg Ryan hopping from one romantic comedy to the next, forever tracing the path from stomach-fluttering flirtation to euphoric romance to crushing heartbreak to post-breakup resilience.
The soundtrack for these exploits usually hearkens back to the 1980s, a time when the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson were pioneering the larger-than-life imperial pop stardom of today but most singers were just trying to cut as many fire singles as they could. On E•MO•TION, Jepsen teamed with a mix of mainstream hit-makers (Shellback, Greg Kurstin, Sia, Peter Svensson) and indie-adjacent cool kids (Dev Hynes, Rostam, Ariel Rechtshaid, Haim) to carve out a bespoke alternate history of that moment, a brighter alternative to the pervasive glamorous gloom of the influential Drive soundtrack. From that opening saxophone blare on “Run Away With Me” onward, Jepsen has been running wild through a pristine synthetic wonderland, becoming an icon of effervescence along the way.
But what happens when the breath of fresh air starts to go stale? In sound and substance, Jepsen’s releases since E•MO•TION have adhered strictly to her personal brand. First came 2016’s Emotion: Side B, a set of solid outtakes that understandably did not deliver the same glimmering rush as the tracks that ended up on the album. The towering 2017 one-off “Cut To The Feeling” lived up to its title, but a proper follow-up was still two years off. And when Dedicated finally arrived last year, it was… fine? The album did not lack for highlights, particularly in its opening stretch, yet in sum it felt forced and underwhelming, like the work of people who were very intentionally trying to recapture the lightning that had coursed through E•MO•TION. Her core fan base remained delighted, but Carly Rae Jepsen now sounded like she was doing a bit.
Perhaps Dedicated Side B benefits from the absence of all that pressure. These 12 tracks are once again leftovers from Jepsen’s album sessions, a pool of material supposedly more than 200 songs deep. Yet track for track they’re at least as good as the original Dedicated offerings, if not better, and they hang together much more naturally. When you’ve spent almost half a decade choosing between dozens upon dozens of songs, your judgment can become clouded. We must now consider the possibility that Jepsen simply chose the wrong songs last year because this collection of outtakes is easily her most satisfying release since E•MO•TION.
Right away, the Jack Antonoff collab “This Love Isn’t Crazy” finds liftoff; it sounds like hearts swirling around Jepsen’s head until they blur into neon glow of the dance floor. The plea for transparency “Window” is even better — a bass-popping, finger-snapping midtempo bop crafted with Vulfpeck’s Theo Katzman and relative unknown Tyler Andrew Duncan. The fizzy “Felt This Way” somehow manages to be crisp and soft-focus all at once, and then its sister song “Stay Away” explodes back from the mirage in bright, bold colors. Both Dev Hynes and Warren Oak Felder of Pop & Oak had a hand in the strutting, squelching “This Is What They Say,” while Ariel Rechtshaid and Chiddy Bang (the rapper who once flipped MGMT’s “Kids” into a novelty hit) molded “Heartbeat” into one of Jepsen’s prettiest, most resonant ballads, one that lets her conjure her signature vulnerability: “And I don’t wanna tell you/ Anything about me/ ‘Cause everything about you/ Is speeding up my heartbeat.”
The second half is nearly as rewarding. Jepsen plays around with rock sounds on the bass-grooving “Summer Love” and the frantically upbeat “Let’s Sort The Whole Thing Out.” She taps into one of her most exciting lyrical modes on the synth banger “Solo,” counseling a friend to get over themselves and enjoy life: “So what? You’re not in love!” On the other hand, the loose, airy, Noonie Bao-assisted closer “Now I Don’t Hate California Anymore” shows Jepsen can widen her lane to make room for feelings less extreme than rapture and irrepressible perseverance. Turns out there’s room for versatility even if you aren’t building out your catalog into an extended universe.
Ironically, only the inert “Fake Mona Lisa” hits like counterfeit CRJ. Meanwhile the ballad that seems least obviously like a Carly Rae Jepsen song could work as this project’s mission statement. Antonoff’s band Bleachers is featured on “Comeback,” and melodically it sounds like something he might have originally pitched to Taylor Swift for Lover — that is, when it isn’t borrowing heavily from Donna Lewis’ timeless “I Love You Always Forever.” Yet the lyrics sum up the way Dedicated Side B steps back from the prior album’s “Carly Rae Jepsen” routine. “I was thinking ’bout making a comeback, back to me,” she sings on an early chorus. Later that line morphs a bit: “I was thinking that maybe you’ll come back, back to me.” I was thinking the same thing. It’s unlikely many of her fans tuned out in the first place, but it’s time for those of us who were losing interest in the Carly Rae Jepsen show to tune back in.