Sabrina Carpenter
Credit: Sophie Hur
by Kayla Beardslee Music Pop Rocks

Sabrina Carpenter — emails i can’t send

August 31, 2022

Emails I Can’t Send is a sonically unfocused record that lacks successful production choices, but it also delivers one of the year’s top pop singles. 

Sabrina Carpenter’s newest album, Emails I Can’t Send, has a lot of emotions to unpack and not enough tools to do it with. Emails is her first project since 2019’s Singular Act II — Act I was one year before, and together they yielded several excellent pop tracks, including “Paris,” “Bad Time,” and “Looking at Me.” This latest record has a baseline competence as a pop project, but doesn’t have much personality beyond that, largely due to lacking production choices.

Many of the tracks on Emails have tasteful mid-tempo arrangements that try to straddle the line between emotional but upbeat pop, mixed with some stripped-back singer-songwriter vibes. Because of this, too many songs end up stuck in the middle, where their instrumental choices aren’t surprising enough to take center stage, but with lyrical efforts that can’t quite carry in isolation and are still reliant on these conventional musical swells. There’s a lot of gentle percussion, simple guitar, and dreamy backing vocals that paint a pretty atmosphere, but this aesthetic doesn’t really go anywhere; “Already Over,” for instance, follows this design to the point of boredom. (“Vicious,” although it begins just as tastefully plaintive, bucks this with a high energy bridge.) Ballad “How Many Things” features a pretty vocal performance from Carpenter, and the minimal guitar accompaniment is the right choice tonally speaking, but the spare production blends into other selections on the tracklist and doesn’t stand out as the especially vulnerable moment it clearly intends to be. The same goes for “Because I Liked a Boy” — the lyrics lambasting deranged stan Twitter behavior and unjust personal attacks on her dating life aren’t wrong, but the by-the-numbers ballad arrangement doesn’t tackle the messaging in any interesting way. “Nonsense” is maybe the worst offender of the vocal/instrumental mismatch: the lyrics and performance choices are so tongue-in-cheek, and the production is giving Carpenter absolutely nothing.

With that said, some songs on Emails I Can’t Send do stand out. “Read Your Mind” is groovy dance-pop, and “Bet You Wanna” has a subdued but tense arrangement that complements its hushed vocals. Early single “Skinny Dipping” wades through the same sincere morass as some earlier tracks, but pulls through successfully because of its lyrical ambitions. (Prolific pop songwriter Julia Michaels co-wrote much of this album, and her signatures are all over it for better and for worse, nowhere more obviously than on this song.) There are conversational melodies, hyperspecific personal details (“Hear the barista call an oat milk latte and your name”), and elaborate turns of phrase (“skinny dip in water under the bridge”). The stream of consciousness verses and the central metaphor are admittedly a little ridiculous, but that commitment is exactly why it works — there’s no need for the instrumental to be exemplary, because the writing is already so notable on its own.

But the best song on this project by a mile is single “Fast Times,” a slinky bossa nova track that Carpenter performs with the perfect amount of winking restraint (“Fast times and fast nights… give me a second to forget I ever really meant it”). It’s a great example of how the most convincing songs on Emails are, surprisingly, not the most earnest and emotional ones, but the cuts where she plays it cool. It’s also a good argument for Carpenter’s path to pop stardom that her vocals shine most when self-conscious of their own performance. Sure, maybe the bops are just hard-carrying, but “Fast Times” at least doesn’t feel like a song that just anyone could pull off. Looking back at her earlier work supports the potential of her personality as well — there’s “Honeymoon Fades,” a loose single from 2020 where, yes, the production was simple, but in a way that still gave the song an alluring jazzy character and let Carpenter flex an array of delicate, smoky vocal choices. “Diamonds Are Forever” had her turn in a soaring diva performance, and on “Looking at Me” she delivered the sassy hook with the utmost confidence: “They ain’t even looking at you, baby — they’re looking at me.” 

On Emails, echoes of this attitude appear on tracks like “Read Your Mind,” where you can practically hear Carpenter rolling her eyes as she sings, “I can’t read your mind!” See also, “Bad for Business”: “He’s good for my heart, but he’s bad for business,” she sings, clearly with no particular care for commercial stability. But these glimpses of fun, personable pop are weighed down by tracks that take their ideas more seriously but don’t have the musical depth or nuance to match. At this point, it’s tough to tell and will be interesting to see whether her next release has the same stylistic conflicts, or if Carpenter veers more fully into either pop star or singer-songwriter territory. In the meantime, Emails at least leaves listeners with “Fast Times,” which remains one of the best pop surprises of the year.

Published as part of Album Roundup — July 2022 | Part 3.