Unraveling the Mystery

A Scar No One Else Can See is a masterwork of bizarre storytelling. What at first appears to be a long-winded piece of music criticism, slowly becomes a three-dimensional rendering of a character – whether real or conjured Landis isn’t certain – that stays solid and unbroken over the course of three albums, two EPs, and dozens of singles. In Jepsen, Landis has found a kindred spirit, an identical soul – he’s staring into a mirror at a broken writer, desperate for the love that will make her whole, a love that will tend to all her broken pieces, who is fond of lyrical third act twists that take her light, effervescent fluff and turns it, on a second listen, into “pitch black pop.” Her songs are almost never what they appear to be at first glance. You have to wait for the shoe to drop in the third verse, then listen to them again. Whereas Landis writes off-kilter comedies about very dark, broken people, so too does Carly Rae Jepsen write airy, danceable tunes about a love she had, ever so briefly, then lost, and has never been able to get over. It is, as one of her lyrics states, a scar no one else can see.

Until Landis saw it.

What unravels over the course of 150 pages is a narrative mystery, one that at first you entertain for the sake of it. Landis begins the document the very same as you: skeptical, joking, giving you the old nudge-nudge-wink-wink “I’m a total nutter for even doing this,” routine. And it paves the way well for what is to follow. And as he breaks down the one and only Jepsen song we all know, he begins to hand us pieces of the engine that drives it. He defines the seven themes present in any Jepsen song – some songs only having one, most of them three, with a few rare keystone songs possessing all seven. And then he starts digging up clues. These clues at first seem to be exactly what many critics mocking Landis accuse him of – common tropes and themes present in pop music. But they keep showing up. And they keep getting more and more specific. So specific in fact, that by the time you’re halfway through the second album, all doubt of this being coincidence is gone from your mind.

Carly Rae Jepsen is telling a story through her music about a girl who fell in love with a boy who couldn’t be hers, screwed it up, and he bailed, leaving her pining for him over the course of the better part of a decade. And as she tells that story, she drops tantalizing clue after tantalizing clue as to the identity of this man, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that Landis chases deep to the edge of some pitch-black places. Landis never goes so far as to guess the true identity of the lost love, and for good fucking reason. Once you get into the third act of this story, the theories that begin swimming in your head could be dangerous if said publicly but guessed wrong. I mean, the whole thing could be innocent. But what if it isn’t?

And that’s the magic of this piece. You may start it as a joke, but by the end, you find that there is a very real story here; the story of a woman whose life and art is defined by a single dalliance into forbidden love. And that story ain’t a happy one, but it sure as hell feels like a true one. Maybe Jepsen is a snowjob, a character created by a brilliant writer playing the part she thinks everyone wants to see. But the evidence just doesn’t support that. Landis really seems onto something here.

You see, what Landis is really tugging at is the specific uses of language in Jepsen’s lyrics, not just the themes. My record scratch moment – the one that made me sit up straight in my chair and sling back the last of the whiskey in my glass – was during the break down of Emotions track 3, titled “I Really Like You.” In it she sings: feel like I could fly with the boy on the moon/So honey hold my hand, you like making me wait for it/I feel like I could die walking up to the room, oh yeah. Landis immediately notes:

“Up to the room.”  It’s an interesting way to say that.  Not “your room,” not “my room,” but “the room.”

She’s meeting him in hotels. Not in apartments or houses.

And BAM! We’re off to the races. This won’t be the last time hotels are alluded to. Nor the oddly specific, and oft repeated, things that happen there. And as each piece of this puzzle gets laid down on the table, Carly Rae Jepsen the woman – not the rock star, not the writer – becomes more and more visible in the art. And Max can’t stop trying to sharpen the image.

carly rae jepsen

The Same Fucking Story

What begins as a lark ends up being a masterclass in drawing a character through small clues and repeated behaviors. Landis doesn’t just pick apart Jepsen’s work, he shows you little by little how to create a character out of scraps lying around, tying those bits together, and presenting them as a mostly intact entity. And by the time I was into EMOTIONS SIDE B, I found myself reeling at how dark the story the song “Stores” was telling – that of someone trying to recreate her heartbreak through one-night stands, then getting pissed off at the guys for not leaving before sunup like they were supposed to, meaning she has to be the one to leave, defeating the purpose of the whole endeavor.

And there I am, metaphorically sitting next to Max Landis as he looks at me and says “What did I fucking tell you, Cargill? It’s all one story. It’s. All. The same. Fucking. Story.”

And it’s actually a pretty great story.

A Scar No One Else Can See’s only weakness stems from the nature of the work itself. It is, as Landis points out in the beginning, a living document; not a polished piece of writing. It has the occasional typo (which may disappear over time) and runs a little long in places that an editor would encourage Landis to tighten up. But with tightening and a little polish, it’s easily a very publishable piece. But in a world of blogging and live-tuned news, these aren’t uncommon or unforgivable flaws. It is, instead, the nature of what this is. You are going on a journey with Max Landis down a very strange little rabbit hole, and dear god, Alice, what an adventure you’ll have.

A Scar No One Else Can See is available as a single, downloadble document, or piecemeal as blogs through a delightfully fucked up, tongue-firmly-in-cheek little website. It can be enjoyed in chunks, or as I did it, in a several hours long single sitting that is a crazy little mindfuck all its own. One thing is certain, it’s one hell of a bonkers, experimental piece of storytelling – a unique experience unlike anything attempted before. If you’re the sort of person always interested in something off the beaten path, this is a piece well worth your time. It’ll definitely be something you’ll want to talk about, for better or worse, with someone after.

C. Robert Cargill is a former film critic, an author, and a screenwriter of such films as SINISTER and MARVEL’S DOCTOR STRANGE. His latest book, SEA OF RUST, is available now from Harper Voyager.

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