Let’s rewind the clocks to fall 2011. Two nearly unknown singer-songwriters have just released fairly unassuming singles that shifted styles from their dead in the water careers. Both of these singles (and videos) would go viral, and would be called some of the best songs of the year. Their success generated enough interest in each artist for a full album. Both records are fairly different, but neither one matched the success of the initial singles. But they’re still interesting listens, all the same.
I’m talking about Lana Del Rey and Carly Rae Jepsen. Del Rey, rebranded from her Lizzie Grant days, lit up the blogosphere with “Video Games” and the hype leading into Born to Die before that album fizzled out. Rae Jepsen, meanwhile, had to wait until last spring for “Call Me Maybe” (released in Canada in September 2011) to become the international beast it was. Similar to how “Video Games” birthed Born to Die, it’s hard to argue that Kiss was anything but a demo or two before “Call Me Maybe”, but how does the album do beside?
There’s weird, conflicting expectations going into Kiss: on one hand, “Call Me Maybe” can’t help but raise expectations; on the other, Born to Die showed that a great single doesn’t guarantee 11 more, and conventional wisdom is to be wary pop albums. It’s a slight relief, then, that Kiss ends up simply “ok”. Nothing here (well, nothing new here) says immediate classic, but the album never descends to pop hell, either.
One of the most striking things about Kiss is that it houses one of THE songs of 2012, but isn’t indebted to the year’s pop landscape in most ways. There’s nary a dubstep breakdown or guest rapper to be found, nor is there any pervasive Eurodance or house influence. The list of guest collaborators is short as well: Max Martin only shows up once, and Owl City and Justin Bieber drop in for a song each.
While none of them reach “Call Me Maybe”‘s level of greatness, the first half of Kiss has great mileage. “Tiny Little Bows” is all bright synths and disco rhythm with teen pop sweetness; admittedly a bit much on the first time or two, but the sugaryness of it gets less abrasive on repeated listens. Third “This Kiss” keeps the same polished synths for the hook, but packs a surprisingly strong low-end kick that gives the song considerable heft.
After opening on a decent one-two combo, Jepsen finally unleashes “Call Me Maybe”. While the rest of the album isn’t radically different from Jepsen’s signature tune, it’s different enough that “Call Me Maybe” feels different from what we’ve heard so far; it’s a little more restrained, a little more nuanced. Something similar can be said for the slightly electro-dance “Curiosity”, the other holdover from the Curiosity EP. The first four songs on the album are all enjoyable if slightly weightless pop, but there’s enough thought and craft put into each one (check out the key change in “Curiosity”) that they all differ themselves from each other, and Jepsen sounds involved in each one.
The lone dud in Kiss‘ first six songs is the team up with Owl City/Adam Young, “Good Time”, whose long purpose here is to remind us to be thankful that the rest of the record didn’t sound as thoughtless and lazy as it does. Young can’t help but come across as overselling weak material and desperate, while Jepsen, given little to work with, slums it. While we’re on the subject of collaborations, “Beautiful”, her duet with Bieber, is an odd man out; on an album full of synthy pop songs, the tambourine and acoustic guitar song can’t help but sound shoehorned. It also has the same subject matter of One Rejection song “What Makes You Beautiful”, which doesn’t work here, either.
“Beautiful” comes in a few songs after Kiss starts to lose its focus. “Turn Me Up” and “Hurt So Good” aren’t bad songs per se, in fact, “Hurt So Good” has a fun string/bass/vocal bridge, but they’re the least interesting songs here aside from “Good Time”. The album picks up for the last three songs, though; “Tonight I’m Getting Over You”, the Max Martin song, steers Jepsen toward club pop territory without abandoning the album’s general sound, and “Guitar String/Wedding Ring” is a last minute standout. The guitar riff adds a little crunch, and Jepsen comes in especially strong on the chorus backed by some massive synths. Closing ballad “Your Heart Is a Muscle” is never able to make its central simile sound anything but corny, but it still gets a passing grade.
And that’s the long and short of the record. The key to the record’s success is Jepsen: she truly commits to the material, and always sounds engaged. Is it just because she knows that Kiss is her one shot? Perhaps, but even when it was new, she demonstrated great showmanship on “Call Me Maybe”. It’s far less fascinating than an album like Born to Die, but more outright successful instead. Will it be remembered by time? Who knows, but it still holds up well for now. Three stars out of five.
tl;dr: Kiss isn’t revolutionary, but a serviceable pop record. 3/5