Carly Rae Jepsen’s Forgotten First Album

Carly Rae Jepsen has seized the attention of the Internet not once but twice, with her inescapable ditty “Call Me Maybe” becoming the song of summer 2012, as well as the recent Run Away With Meme vine sensation, created by her devoted gay following. But she has a little-known album from 2008, released after her third place finish on Canadian Idol, titled “Tug of War.” Despite being an Idol finalist, the album barely made waves when it first came out, and wasn’t made available online until after “Call Me Maybe” brought Jepsen her stardom. It doesn’t have a Metacritic page, and notices from respected publications are practically nonexistent. It has mainly remained a footnote in reviews of her other work, a winking reminder that the critically acclaimed “E•MO•TION” is actually her third album. But is “Tug of War” a forgotten gem floating around the Internet, hidden in plain sight on Apple Music and Spotify? Or is it a just a blip in the career of a pop star on the rise, destined to remain unknown by the masses? In the grand tradition of Carly Rae Jepsen fans taking things too far[1], I decided to investigate.

Each track clocks in under four minutes long, and with only ten tracks, it’s a breezy half-hour listen. Unfortunately, some of the songs blend together, and the album definitely does not rival “E•MO•TION” or even “Kiss” in quality. Her songwriting has become more polished since 2008, and she’s one of the best pop singer-songwriters in the business, chart performance aside. But even if the album never approaches the brilliance of her later output, her songwriting talent is still evident here. The titular track features one of her better choruses and is just as catchy as “Call Me Maybe.” And whereas almost every track on her two subsequent albums seems to be about love or romance in some form, the thematic content of “Tug of War” is much broader, including a sweet, gentle rebuke of capitalism in “Money and the Ego” and a lament of non-boy problems in “Worldly Matters.” It’s refreshing, if not a bit jarring, to hear Jepsen sing about these different themes. That’s not to say she isn’t the lovesick girl we’ve come to know; she has her unrequited crush anthem with “Heavy Lifting,” and a precursor to “Favourite Colour” in the romantic “Heavy Lifting.” And as fans of Jepsen know, she has the occasional taste for weirdness on some of her tracks[2], and this album is no different from the others. The bridge of the opening track “Bucket” is literally the children’s song “There’s a Hole in My Bucket,” a track popularized by Disney’s Goofy.

The most surprising thing about “Tug of War” is its sound; we associate Jepsen with the bubbly synths of” Call Me Maybe,” and the iconic sax riff of “Run Away With Me.” All of the songs on “Tug of War” are simple folk compositions, just guitars, the occasional drum, and Jepsen’s distinctive voice. It’s more Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat than Cyndi Lauper and Katy Perry. It even includes a cover of the John Denver hit “Sunshine On My Shoulders.” Jepsen attributed the album’s folk sound to her parents’ influence in an interview with Time, saying she grew up in a house filled with the songs of “Van Halen, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen.”

Unsurprisingly, given the nonexistent reception of her first album that she has turned away from its sound. The entirety of this album, save for one collaboration with Josh Ramsay of Marianas Trench, was produced by Ryan Stewart, who also produced “Curiosity” (off of “Kiss”). While I think Stewart did a fine job with the album, Jepsen’s decision with her subsequent albums to collaborate with other producers has certainly paid off in sales and acclaim. Much like Taylor Swift has gradually turned away from her country roots to create pure pop music, Jepsen’s folk roots are completely absent from “E•MO•TION.” They appear briefly on “Kiss,” shining through on her duet with Justin Bieber, “Beautiful.” Even “Call Me Maybe” follows the folk structure of narrative in its verses closer than her following song, although the chorus is undeniably and inescapably pop, a transitional link between her two different eras. This evolution towards synth pop also feels more natural for her voice, which is too thin for folk songwriting; even “weaker” singers like Carole King or Joni Mitchell can emote and evoke feelings inside us[3]. Jepsen does longing (“All That”) and euphoric (“Run Away With Me”) as well as anyone else in the pop game, but she cannot pull off melancholy like a true folk singer. Her voice always sounds like she’s smiling, even through the tears. It simply stands out better among synths and snares than a simple guitar strum.

Regardless of how far she’s come since this first album, “Tug of War” is still a quintessentially Carly Rae Jepsen album in content if not form, and for the casual fan, unaware of its existence, it could provide a few more bops for your Saturday night pregame playlist, or keep the more hardcore fan’s thirst for her “E•MO•TION” followup quenched for the briefest of moments. It’s understandable why “Call Me Maybe” was Jepsen’s big break, instead of this folk pop album. Still, it’s worth a listen, and at its thirty-minute length, barely even counts as a time commitment. And at a time when almost all of our pop divas are waiting to drop their next album or single and people who normally have taste have decided that Meghan Trainor’s new song is actually good, it’s a welcome distraction from the current state of pop.

[1] Carly Rae Jepsen’s Wikipedia page lists her as a gay activist because she once canceled a concert due to the fact that Boy Scouts are homophobic.

[2] The lyrics of “Warm Blood” and “LA Hallucinations,” the use of the word hijack in “Making the Most of the Night,” and her ode to road head, “Drive,” all come to mind.

[3] That’s not to say Jepsen doesn’t evoke feelings inside me, as “Your Type” is practically my internal monologue put to song.