#25: Best Coast – “California Nights”

California Nights is the smartest stupid album of the year. After a few albums of lo-fi bedroom pop that never quite felt sincere to me, this is the album where Best Coast finally become what they were destined to be: a big, dumb, slick rock band, like Oasis if they loved California as much as the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“Stupid” and “dumb” aren’t usually adjectives used for praise, but there is an appeal to how California Nights completely foregoes any attempt at intellectualism or depth, and instead focuses on crafting anthemic pop songs that just sound good. It’s a smart decision that plays to the band’s strengths while making you forget about their weaknesses. Freed from the self-imposed lo-fi constraints of their past music, Bethany Cosentino’s singing and melodies soar higher while Bobb Bruno’s guitar benefits from the extra polish, evoking the California-landscape-at-sunset feelings the band has always gone for.

The bigger sound and added production values likely alienated some of Best Coast’s original fans, and music critics weren’t too keen on it either. But I think California Nights is the sound of a band finally figuring out who they are and embracing it.

The 2015 Year-End Extravaganza

Twitter has roped me back into making year-end lists, so I’ve made a list of my top 25 favorite albums of the year. The problem is figuring out how to share it, since I know the world desperately needs to read it and I’d frankly be doing mankind a disservice if I didn’t publish it in some form. I don’t want that on my conscience.

I started writing the typical end of year list post with every album, and then a short blurb about it and why I liked it, but I found it very constricting. I felt compelled to keep each blurb a reasonable length so the final post wouldn’t be a total word-bomb. I also like to link to music I’m writing about, since just listening is more effective than words at describing the sound, but was worried about making people’s computers or phones explode with that many youtube embeds on one page.

So, this is my solution: starting probably tomorrow, I’m going to roll out the list gradually, with each album getting its own post. Most of them will still be short, since I surprisingly don’t have article-worthy opinions about literally every album I listen to. But it does give me the freedom to go a bit longer and deeper if I have something to say or think the album warrants it. I think this will give me more freedom with the writing and allow me to do more justice to these albums, which I think deserve better than a dashed-off two sentence blurb. It also allows me to flood people’s social media timelines, which is one of the most enjoyable things about being a writer.

Stay tuned.

“I Want to Grow Up” Track-By-Track

I’ve already written a couple of posts about Colleen Green’s I Want to Grow Up, while also consistently championing it on social media for the last few months. By now, I imagine people are kind of sick of me talking about it. But everything I’ve said about it doesn’t do justice to how much I’ve thought about this album over the course of the year and how it has become the soundtrack to my 2015 life.

“Soundtrack of my life” is a phrase I find really corny. I tend to be more detached about music, analyzing it as an art form and looking at the artist’s intent rather than trying to insert myself in the proceedings. This is partially because I enjoy critically examining things in this way, but also because my experiences (or lack thereof) never were really the subject of songs.

Songs are often about extreme moments in life: the highest highs and the lowest lows. Great art is often associated with dramatic feelings like ecstasy or heartbreak. If my life were a graph, it would just be a straight line down the middle. Nothing that great has ever happened to me, but nothing that bad has either. I’ve kind of floated along, feeling mostly invisible and inconsequential, waiting for something to happen. Needless to say, that floating, invisible feeling isn’t usually the subject of music, because it’s perceived as not being interesting.

I Want to Grow Up really resonated with me because it’s the first album that attacks that invisible feeling with pinpoint accuracy. After years of listening to music in a detached, analytical way, this album stepped up, confronted me, and basically punched me in the face. I almost had to stop listening the first time I played it because the lyrics were too real and I was getting paranoid that Green had gained direct access to my thoughts.

A couple months ago, I did something I never do: I went to a record store and saw Green play a concert. She played by herself with an iPad programming the drums, and performed every song on the album except for one (more on that later). Afterwards, I did something else that I really never do: I approached her and told her how much I loved her album and how it said everything I had been thinking. We exchanged some small talk about her tour before I shuffled out of the store, hoping I hadn’t embarrassed myself, but knowing that I truly needed to thank the person who made this album, which is not something I’d really felt a need to do before.

It’s all very gushy, but that’s the power of I Want to Grow Up: it’s an album about the type of people who normally don’t get immortalized in songs, the slackers and “losers” who have feelings too. And I give Green tons of credit for the execution, which is exactly what it needed to be: simple, direct, and powerful because of it. This is my attempt to write down everything this album has made me think about this year, track by track.

Track One: “I Want to Grow Up”

“I’m sick of always being bored/I think I need a schedule”

In addition to all the praise I’ve heaped on it already, I Want to Grow Up also arranges the tracks perfectly so the album feels like it’s telling a story. Here, the title track serves as the album’s thesis statement. A common creative writing lesson I learned was that your main character always needs to want something, which drives their action. In this case, Green obviously wants to grow up, and the rest of the album follows from that.

The lyric about “needing a schedule” jumped out at me on first listen because it’s such a mundane, true observation for anyone who has slacked off for extended periods of time. I’ve had long employment droughts in the last couple of years and every time I end up keeping a ridiculous schedule where I stay up all night, then have problems sleeping the next day, etc. This often meant being awake at about 12-6 a.m. when no one else is and struggling to find ways to fill the time, then sleeping too late to do anything productive during the day. It’s fun at first, but “I Want to Grow Up” articulates the desire I had to break out of that cycle, and also the difficulty doing it.

Track Two: “Wild One”

“And now I know he’ll never be my man/it breaks my heart but I understand”

I consider this the most traditional song on the album in terms of lyrical content. It’s classic pop stuff: loving the “wild one” who can’t be tamed and wishing you could change them. On a broader level, it is about one of the big themes of this album, which is really wanting something, feeling that it’s within your grasp, and not being sure how to get it. I want to grow up, but how? Is there a life manual or something that will fall from the sky? What am I supposed to do next?

Track Three: “TV”

“A big big blanket to wrap around myself/In my room/Where I don’t have to worry about a conversation/And I don’t have to worry about being fun”

“TV” is probably the most slackery song on an album full of them, a love song dedicated to the television that serves as a constant distraction from the real world. This song starts to get at one of the other big themes of the album, which is how people use technology to escape from all their real-world anxieties. In your room with the TV on, you can finally be yourself: there are no social obligations, no need to conform to what people expect of you — the TV almost becomes your truest friend because it is always seeing the real you. I often use TV and the internet as a crutch (especially during late nights), a temporary reprieve from everything life is throwing at me that I can’t handle. The problem is that these day-to-day distractions can accumulate until weeks go by and I’ve done practically nothing, which is the addictive danger of TV friendship that this song understands — the thing that in the moment seems like an escape can become another obstacle.

Track Four: “Pay Attention”

“How do some people talk so much?”

In the age where seemingly everyone has ADD, “Pay Attention” captures the inability many of us have to hold a conversation and put up with irritating small talk (“talk so small you need a microscope to discern much at all”). “How do some people talk so much?” is pretty much a verbatim thing I think all the time, especially at family gatherings where everyone has an opinion about stuff I never think about. The way other people seem to effortlessly make conversation while I never know what to say is a constant source of frustration, especially when being quiet is interpreted as being aloof or disinterested.

Track Five: “Deeper Than Love”

“Because I’m shitty and I’m lame and I’m dumb and I’m a bore/And once you get to know me you won’t love me anymore”

The phrase “centerpiece” is overused in music criticism, but it applies here: “Deeper Than Love” is in the middle of the album, is six-minutes long, and is its darkest moment, plunging head-first into all of our deepest fears. This is the song Green did not perform when I saw her play live, I suspect because she wasn’t comfortable singing it for an intimate audience.

The line I quoted is probably the one I’ve thought most about from this album. I do a lot of communicating online and I think a lot about how we perceive ourselves and others on the internet. I’m a lot better at articulating myself in writing than in person, so the online version of me naturally will look better than the “real” me while having the same thoughts. But it’s still an inherently incomplete picture that other people fill in: they might draw conclusions or think stuff about me that isn’t there, just based on how I post.

I’ve historically been scared to try to make any online friendships into “IRL” friendships for reasons given in the lyrics of “Deeper Than Love.” I’m always afraid that people will have built an image of me in their head that the “real” me won’t be able to live up to, especially given social anxiety and nerves that don’t exist as much online. “Deeper Than Love” really nails this intimacy fear that I suspect is common, especially in the era of online dating where everyone is working with limited, self-presented information. It becomes easier to keep people at a distance than deal with the possibility of not living up to what other people want you to be.

Track Six: “Things That Are Bad For Me (pt. 1)” 

“Like a pet trained to return/But humans are supposed to learn/And change when things are going wrong/I always let it go for way too long”

The “things that are bad for me” in the title is left general in this song, so the listener can fill it in with their own bad habits. The lyric I quoted reminds me of all the holding patterns I let myself get into, especially when I’m unemployed and slacking. I feel worthless because I don’t have a job, which leads to me not applying to jobs because I’m worthless obviously, so why would anyone hire me, and it becomes this self-fulfilling cycle of low-key self-destruction that is certainly bad for me.

Like Green, I know I’m a human and I’m supposed to change when things are going wrong. But it just isn’t that easy, and this album gets that. While relatives and other people tell me “just get a job,” they don’t recognize how difficult it can be to break out of these negative cycles and routines, especially once they’ve accumulated over a period of time. I Want to Grow Up recognizes that these are real problems while also not ignoring the “first-world” aspect of them — I feel privileged that these are the only problems I need to deal with, but that only makes it more frustrating when it’s difficult to overcome them because it seems easy for everyone else.

Track Seven: “Things That Are Bad For Me (pt. 2)”

“There’s an energy inside my brain/set to self-depreciate/some kind of anxiety/makes me do things that I know are bad for me”

Part one was about recognizing her own bad habits; part two is about what causes them. As someone who often struggles with tasks that others seem to find easy, I can’t help but wonder sometimes: why am I like this? Why do I keep doing these things I know are bad? Why can’t I be normal?

“Things That Are Bad For Me (pt. 2)” is where the album starts to really gel into a cohesive story. So far, every song has been about these different anxieties and fears and ways to escape from them. This is the one that explains how these problems overlap and connect with each other, like each is a separate thread that combines with the others to make a web that is nearly impossible to escape from.

Track Eight: “Some People”

“Why is it so easy for some people?”

Something I mentioned in my first post about this album was the feeling of not being able to stack up with your peers. This issue is exacerbated now by social media which quantifies “success” in a very narrow way: with numbers of friends, likes, etc that serve as easy comparisons to others. If your numbers are lower, it’s hard not to feel “worse” and wonder how some people make life look so easy.

The big pressure that comes from this feeling is to conform, to be like everyone else that is perceived to be more successful than you. “Some People,” especially the second verse, painfully expresses this feeling, as Green lists a litany of things she could do to try to fit in: dye her hair, drink alcohol, wear more makeup. When being yourself doesn’t seem like it’s good enough, it’s hard to resist the temptation to join the herd.

Track Nine: “Grind My Teeth”

“I think about the future/about society/it’s all so overwhelming/it makes me grind my teeth and cry”

I’ve semi-jokingly called Green “the voice of our generation” based on how this album sums up so many fears and anxieties of millennials. “Grind My Teeth” is the first time she looks outward and mentions bigger fears, about the future, society, and “our generation failing.” On an album obsessed with personal anxieties and shortcomings, this song serves as a reminder that there are big things to worry about too, like how we’re all screwed and everything sucks. Just in case things were getting too easy for you.

Track Ten: “Whatever I Want”

“Don’t want to be scared/I’ve got to see what’s out there/Lately I’ve become aware/That I can do whatever I want”

I finally got my driver’s license in January this year at age 25. Driving is still scary, but one thing I instantly gravitated towards was getting to listen to music in the car, which lived up to all the hype I had heard about it. I Want to Grow Up was released a month or two later and quickly became my go-to car album, soundtracking many of my commutes to my job I didn’t really like with its simple guitar-driven rock sounding pretty good with the windows rolled down (my car’s AC doesn’t work).

The weirdest adjustment to finally driving has been realizing that I can just… do things. For a long time, while everyone else was able to get around and live their lives easily, I was still always dependent on others to drive me or get me things. I got used to not doing much socially because I would need to get a ride and it was a whole hassle not worth dealing with. The feeling that I can now do “whatever I want” is hard to grasp, and I still haven’t fully capitalized on it because it’s kind of scary to have so many options suddenly at your fingertips that weren’t there before.

I suspect “Whatever Your Want” is not about Green getting her driver’s license, but it has that same feeling of beginning to gain independence and realizing that you don’t need to hold yourself back anymore. It’s an optimistic note for the album to end on, but it doesn’t feel cheap or like it supersedes what the rest of the album is about. Instead, the most powerful part is it’s about Green reaffirming her individuality despite all the pressure to conform (as heard in “Some People”), and recognizing that you can only be yourself, even if it sometimes feels like “yourself” isn’t good enough for the rest of the world. And that’s okay. Because eventually, with enough little baby steps, you can create a world of your own that is just as good as everyone else’s.

Beach House – “Thank Your Lucky Stars”

Once a band has released enough material, it’s easy to fall into taking a definitive unchanging stance on them. After four albums, this was my take on Beach House: they’re like a statue in a museum. Their music is beautiful and I appreciated the craft, but I couldn’t form a connection with it. After enough looking, I’d eventually get bored and walk away to the next piece.

When their fifth album, Depression Cherry, came out earlier this year, it only strengthened my stance. It was Beach House doing their Beach House thing with the slow jams that sparkle and sound lovely but are samey and not that memorable. I listened a couple times, filed my obligatory take on the band on social media, then mentally wrote the band off, figuring there wouldn’t be new material for another three or four years and that the material would be the same old stuff anyways.

To everyone’s surprise, the band came back less than two months later and released Thank Your Lucky Stars, another full length album. I met this with an eye-roll: this band already makes too much similar material and now they’re putting out two albums in one year? We get it, Beach House: you can make slow-paced dream pop songs. What are you trying to prove?

I gave Thank Your Lucky Stars what I figured would be a token listen to further solidify my ironclad Beach House opinion. Instead, the album totally won me over in a way I didn’t expect. It’s not like the band dramatically changed up their formula or anything, but something about Thank Your Lucky Stars felt totally different. While their previous albums seemed like they were behind glass, this time I could reach out and touch it.

I’m having a hard time figuring out why this is the case beyond “I like the songs more.” One reason is that the tone of Thank Your Lucky Stars is a slight departure from their other recent albums — while their previous music felt too passive to me, this album has a darker edge that becomes confrontational and forces the listener to look inside themselves. A bizarre, nonsensical feeling I had listening to the album was that it almost felt like doom metal instead of dream pop. It sounds more foreboding, the music is heavier and more immersive, and the lyrics confront doomy topics — there’s literally a song called “Elegy to the Void,” which has a mesmerizing heavy guitar section that reminds me of Deerhunter’s “Desire Lines.” It’s easily my favorite song the band has recorded.

Given my previous complaints that Beach House sounded pretty to the point of being bland, I really love the slight roughness of Thank Your Lucky Stars and think it brings out a more personal and intimate side of the band. And by making this gloomier album, a band I previously thought was one-note proved they can subtly reinvent themselves without getting away from what they’re good at. I don’t know if this will be the most popular Beach House album among their longtime fans, but it is the one most likely to turn skeptics into believers.

“Blueberry Boat” and the Joys of Divisiveness

When I was first getting interested in music, a common method I used to find albums was looking at the highest scores Pitchfork has given out. A lot is said about how important a strong Pitchfork recommendation is for bands, and my experiences getting into indie music bore that out: anything over a 9.0 would instantly get my attention, and I certainly gave albums with a high Pitchfork score more leeway when listening to them, figuring that there must be something good about them to warrant that kind of acclaim.

One of the albums I found this way was Blueberry Boat by The Fiery Furnaces, which was given a 9.6 in 2004 by Chris Dahlen. It’s a 76-minute album with ridiculously long songs, tons of random noodling, and highly esoteric lyrics — when people make fun of hipstery over-intellectual indie music, they probably have something like Blueberry Boat in mind. In his review, Dahlen wrote enthusiastically about how how epic and complex the album was, and I get the sense that the “9.6” at the top is Dahlen’s own personal score for the album. Other music reviewers in 2004 disagreed vehemently, claiming the album was “unlistenable” or worse — it even got a 1/10 in the NME.

One of the most famous jokes on The Simpsons is in the “Cape Feare” episode, when the villainous Sideshow Bob steps on a rake so that the handle comes up and hits him in the face. Then he does it again… and again… and again, for 35 seconds, an eternity in the world of cartoon joke-telling. In the DVD commentary for the episode, showrunner Al Jean explained that the show’s running time was too short, so he decided to try something unusual to fill space. He’d been told that sometimes  if a joke is funny, it stops being funny if it gets repeated, but then can become really funny if it continues getting dragged out past the point of reason. So he looped the Sideshow Bob animation and had him step on nine rakes in total instead of the initial single rake.

The result is that the joke became one of the meta breaking-the-fourth-wall jokes that The Simpsons was known for. Initially, the viewer laughs at the physical comedy of Sideshow Bob stepping on the rake. But after about the sixth rake, the joke changes: it becomes about the people who made the show and what they were presumably smoking when they decided to write Sideshow Bob stepping on all those rakes — the joke is about the craft of the joke itself. It ends up really capturing the audaciousness and weirdness that made The Simpsons such a great show at its peak. In the world of comedy television where there is pressure to deliver rapid-fire jokes to keep the audience’s attention, they decided to show a peripheral character stepping on rakes for 30 seconds, figuring their audience would get it.

This is all a round-about way of getting to my point, which is that Blueberry Boat is the Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes of indie albums. Its songs and the album itself are so long and overcooked that it has the same fourth-wall-breaking element for me, where I stop thinking about what the music itself is saying and start reflecting on how absurd it is that Matt and Eleanor Friedberger made a 9-minute song about blueberry pirates, or a 10-minute album opener that is like four songs that got randomly glued together. And the brazenness of the band becomes part of Blueberry Boat‘s appeal: while this kind of indulgence can be very annoying, the way the Fiery Furnaces escalate it and push it so far gives Blueberry Boat a unique, winning charm — not despite its excesses, but because of them.

Blueberry Boat sometimes gets called a concept album because of its operatic story-based songs, even though there seemingly isn’t much connecting the songs to each other. I view it through the Sideshow Bob lens: it’s an album that is about the album itself. It is constructed to make you aware of its own construction and to appreciate the amount of wonder and energy that is put into these bizarre stories. It’s about embracing creativity and imagination, accepting complexity and weirdness, and being yourself even if that might end up annoying people.

Blueberry Boat definitely did annoy people, which is why it’s this exceptionally rare, maybe even bygone thing in music: a truly divisive album, even among critics who (especially now, I feel) have very similar outlooks on what makes music good. Especially on social media, albums seem to instantly reach this suffocating consensus, but Blueberry Boat holds up as a legitimately love-it-or-hate-it album that defies easy categorization. And the fact that people hate it only makes me like it more. I’m not that interested in music that makes itself too easy to like — it’s much more fun to find the good in an album like Blueberry Boat that is so off-the-wall and inaccessible to the general public.

The days of albums like Blueberry Boat getting a 9.6 from Pitchfork are pretty much over, and I imagine it’s one of those old reviews that the site wishes they could wipe from existence. Personally, I find myself nostalgic for when music reviews read like strong individual opinions instead of bland consensus-forming or wishy-washy “this might appeal to you I guess” non-statements. Consensus is boring, and that’s something The Fiery Furnaces understood when they made Blueberry Boat. It’s an album that practically begs you to dislike it, which is why I like it so much.

The Legacy of The Shaggs

A lot has already been written online about The Shaggs, a band of sisters who released one album, Philosophy of the World, in 1969 that has gained a cult following over the years. Their story gets told frequently because it’s a compelling outsider narrative: their overbearing father, believing they were destined for stardom, put them in a band when they had no knowledge of music, and the resulting album sounded bizarre and alien. Yet, thanks to artists like Frank Zappa who allegedly proclaimed them to be “better than The Beatles,” their music has endured.

Many suspected Zappa was trolling when he praised The Shaggs — that nobody could possibly like music that is so obviously bad. It is easy to assume anyone who likes them only does so in that “so bad it’s good” way, like people who watch Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, where most of the enjoyment comes from pointing and laughing at it. I argue that The Shaggs made actual good music, or at least music that raises interesting questions about what art is and who can make it.

I’d be lying if I said I really loved The Shaggs and listened to them regularly — the truth is, it’s hard for me to really enjoy music that is so lacking in basic rhythm, melody, etc. There is plenty of weird, avant-garde music that consciously rejects those elements, but most of the time it’s by artists who know music very well and are interested in pushing its limits — they know the rules, and thus know how to break them effectively.

The Shaggs are different: they seem entirely oblivious to what music even is, much less the rules that govern it. The result is music that is unique not just in how bizarre and off-kilter it sounds, but in how unguarded it is emotionally. To listen to The Shaggs is to hear music that is entirely free of calculation or pretension. At times, they are painfully innocent, particularly on songs like “My Pal Foot Foot” or “Who Are Parents?” where they earnestly clatter in their unusual way about imaginary friends and the importance of their family. They are so sheltered and naive that it even has a darkness to it, a twisted beauty that makes their music worthwhile and memorable instead of being random noise.

It is hard for human ears to adjust to The Shaggs, which is something that fascinates me in and of itself. When I listen to them, I always end up going very deep into this existential dorm-room logic, where I begin to question everything I thought I knew about music. Because the story that is told is how The Shaggs “couldn’t play music,” but like… what makes music music, man? Why do our brains like to hear rhythm and melodies done in the way that most music is, and not in the way The Shaggs did? Aren’t these all just like… random sounds existing in space and time that we arbitrarily give meaning to? Sometimes after thinking stuff like this long enough, I begin to wonder if The Shaggs are the only band that has ever played music correctly — maybe everyone else has been doing it wrong.

I’m usually able to talk myself off that ledge eventually, but I do think The Shaggs unintentionally predicted a lot of common indie trends that I still hear today. In particular, they’re the most extreme example of a crucial indie idea: that sometimes it’s good for music to have imperfections and flaws. Tons of indie music intentionally sounds rougher and dirtier than major label products as a calculated reaction to the slickness of mainstream music. Sometimes this comes across as a cheap gimmick, especially when it’s only done because a band is trying to sound “authentic,” but it’s something I really like when it’s done naturally. Limitations can often result in more memorable music than all of the studio magic and technical ability in the world.

In that regard, this year’s band that really reminds me of The Shaggs is Girlpool, a duo of teenagers from L.A. who play music that is defined by simplicity. They only have an electric guitar and bass (no drums), and sing interlocking vocal harmonies with each other over basic chords. The title of their album, Before the World Was Big, even sounds a bit Shaggsy, and their lyrics naturally reflect a youthful (yet smart) view of the world. Before the World Was Big doesn’t reach the subversive insanity of Philosophy of the World, but it’s similarly powerful because of how restricted it is — it’s interesting to listen to music that is so boiled down to its basic parts.

To give Girlpool credit, they have real technical ability, which The Shaggs did not. But I hear a lot of the same themes in their music, especially the tension between youthful innocence and encountering the darkness of the real world.  The limitations in Girlpool’s music feel vital and genuine because it supports those ideas — a lot of what makes their music special would be lost if it was slickly produced with a full band set-up. It’s a delicate act to pull off because it can so easily sound contrived, yet Before the World Was Big never does. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it being presented in any other way — just like it’s hard to imagine highly trained musicians making an album like Philosophy of the World.

I think that is the essence of the “better than the Beatles” thing. The traditional view on this as that The Beatles were immensely talented and The Shaggs could never hope to approximate their music in any way — which is true. But this can also be flipped: The Beatles were too good, knew music too well, to ever in a million years make an album like Philosophy of the World, even with infinite resources. If that doesn’t take talent, I don’t know what does.

Carly Rae Jepsen: An Appreciation

Like most people, my first exposure to Carly Rae Jepsen was her inescapable smash hit “Call Me Maybe.” At the time, it was frequently derided as obnoxious, but I secretly kind of loved it. It was catchy and fun, but it also felt different from other music on the radio, in part because of Jepsen’s personality, which comes through in the song’s title.

“Call Me” obviously makes me think of the Blondie song, which had Debbie Harry’s confidence and cool. Pop music is often about those two traits, with artists exuding swagger and needing to appear like they’re on the cutting edge. “Call Me Maybe” added that one word — “maybe” — which gave it such a different feeling from all that other music. It was a song about not being confident: “Call me… maybe?” Uncertainty and shyness are rarely traits I hear in pop, and it endeared Jepsen a lot in my mind, because within the artifice of pop music she felt like a real person.

Since “Call Me Maybe,” I’ve become more annoyed at how egotistical so much pop is. So many songs are only commentaries on the artists’ own celebrity, whether it’s addressing their “haters,” talking up their own skills, or lashing out at the media that covers them. I never quite know what I’m supposed to get out of that as a listener. Am I supposed to care that a very popular artist apparently has haters, or about how they’re living it up in NYC? Even the catchiest chorus can’t make up for not caring about the artist’s lyrics and personality.

Part of the appeal of Jepsen’s new album, Emotion, is how it avoids these self-involved pop tropes and instead focuses on the sort of lyrics that have been the bread-and-butter of pop music forever, about love, falling in love, loving love, and various other love-based things. This has been perceived by some as a flaw in Emotion — that its songs are too blank and don’t reveal enough about Jepsen herself — but in the current landscape I find it to be a strength, an antidote to the increasingly viral nature of pop. When so much pop is about branding and being a phenomenon, the focus Emotion puts on crafting actual songs gives it a humble, even admirable quality.

And it helps that the craft on Emotion is really, really, really good. Jepsen reportedly wrote a massive number of songs, working with an army of producers at several recording studios before picking out the best ones for the album. This lengthy recording process is the opposite of what was expected of her after “Call Me Maybe” blew up and she rushed out her previous album. When she was already being predicted as a one-hit wonder, the logic was that she should strike while the iron is hot, before people forgot who she was. Instead, she took her time to make sure the songs fit together and sounded the way she wanted, which is why Emotion feels like a single artistic vision despite the cavalcade of personnel attached to it.

Emotion won’t yield a “Call Me Maybe” level hit, but that isn’t the point. Jepsen’s goal was to make a pop album (yes, an album) that sounded timeless, that wasn’t the product of novelty. Given some of the gems on this album like “Run Away With Me,” it’s hard to argue that she didn’t succeed.