(Tons of Spotify links incoming.)
Attempts to mythologize Carly Rae Jepsen, patron saint of desire and limerence, almost always leave her first album “Tug of War” out of the narrative. It’s the odd one out in her discography — “Kiss,” “Emotion”, and “Dedicated” all showcase Carly’s knack for blending the saccharine smack of contemporary bubblegum pop with the shimmer of ‘80s synth, albeit in different ways, while “Tug of War” chooses the acoustic guitar as its weapon of choice. To most, “Tug of War” was a non-starter. It’s the post-Canadian Idol, pre-Call Me Maybe album, so it’s not special, it’s not part of the journey.
Why? The stan in me wants to say that sweeping “Tug of War” under the rug is like saying the Old Testament is less important than the New one, and I’m no heretic. But for real, the issue isn’t fandom commitments. Carly Rae’s debut album really does lack the glow that her subsequent albums exude, but still. I’m going to try to explain why “Tug of War” slipped under the radar, and why it deserves more attention as a formative work of one of the greatest musicians of our time.
“Tug of War” is a soft bopper, a cup of chamomile tea. It isn’t the feverish throes of love, but the feeling you get when you wake up on the right side of the bed.
Perhaps we can owe “Tug of War’s” lukewarm reception to a mismatch of the times. It came to the party too late and couldn’t jive with its closest sonic cousins — Ashlee Simpson’s soaring Pieces of Me came out in 2004, while Michelle Branch’s “Hotel Paper” album came out in 2003. (Tell Me kinda sounds like a Michelle Branch deep cut.) Maybe “Tug of War” simply missed its window — the album came out in 2008, where it was helplessly left to compete with the likes of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak,” and ground zero of the radio friendly indie rock boom of the late aughts, Vampire Weekend’s self-titled. In 2008, Beyonce was still Sasha Fierce, and rock titans AC/DC, Metallica, and Guns N’ Roses all released new shit. (Middling compared to their respective discographies, but their status as giants meant that anything they put out could eclipse almost anything else.) Not to mention, the acoustic guitar songbird dominating coffee shop speakers back in the day was Colbie Caillat who — say what you want — was really onto something with Bubbly. (“When you make me feel this way, I just… mmm.” Christ.)
Poor “Tug of War” couldn’t hope to rise above the din, which is an unfair thing to say, because it didn’t feel the need to. It’s a soft bopper, a cup of chamomile tea. It isn’t the feverish throes of love, but the feeling you get when you wake up on the right side of the bed. If we wanna really be daring, “Tug of War’s” penchant for soft yearning shares an interesting resemblance to “Dedicated,” whose gliding ruminations on love are pretty distant from the layered bombastic productions of “Emotion” and “Kiss.”
And as much as I’m tempted to say that Jepsen was still in her cocoon stage during this era, aren’t all artists always evolving, no matter what stage they are in their career? Also, who’s to say Carly didn’t know what she wanted in 2008? “You kissed my mirror reflection / when I looked at me today,” she croons on Heavy Lifting and, good God, does that one line embody Carly’s perfect hold on the metaphysics on desire, a sense of artistry that blurs the line between body and perceptions the way only the most vivid, lucid dreams can?
“Tug of War” is the work of a pop genius, working with an incomplete arsenal.
Maybe in some alternate universe, Carly Rae Jepsen had as much capital and access to collaborators in making “Tug of War,” as she actually did with “Emotion.” Who’d be in the album liner notes? Natalie Imbruglia? M2M? It’s not like New Wave or disco or electronica are the only styles coursing through Carly’s veins. She grew up listening to James Taylor and Savage Garden, both acts whose bread and butter are gentle guitar strums. The sounds that shape any musician aren’t always vivid in the foreground — influences tend to sink below the surface, into the cauldron of the artist’s creative juices, and completely emulsify, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
And sometimes, songs in old records act as training ground for the bangers in succeeding releases. Let’s draw some quick parallels between “Tug of War” songs and later releases. The skip hop jealousy of the title track feels like the same mischief that guides This Kiss. Sweet Talker is the flirtatious look that precedes the lioness pounce of I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance. And doesn’t Hotel Shampoos sound like the calm before the chaos of LA Hallucinations? (Also, is the hole in her Bucket the same one that turned into a little black hole in her golden cup? Queen of continuity.)
At the risk of falling into the trap of worship, allow me to make this claim: “Tug of War” is the work of a pop genius, working with an incomplete arsenal.
I’m not saying “Tug of War” is Carly’s best album, or even great. The hooks are rarely ever sticky, and I can’t think of a single artist with a discography of consistently earth-shattering LPs. But I do think understanding “Tug of War’s” textures, tones, and thematic concerns allows us to view the greater tapestry of pop music as a thing that involves more than just effervescent synths and deep bass riffs and danceable beats. At this point, Carly Rae Jepsen doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, but it’s still interesting to think that even for a pop deity like her, she had to walk before she could run.