Music

On her fourth album, Dedicated, Canadian popstar Carly Rae Jepsen continues to explore heartbreak, love and infatuation against a backdrop of disco synths and catchy melodies. By Brodie Lancaster.

Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated

Carly Rae Jepsen.
Credit: SUPPLIED

In “Now That I Found You”, a single from her new record, Dedicated, Carly Rae Jepsen lies to her listeners. “My heart’s a secret,” the 33-year-old Canadian sings on the EDM-filtered track. As far as popstars go, Jepsen is a veritable enigma, but if there’s one thing her listeners know intimately, it’s her heart.

Unlike other solo female popstars such as Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande, Jepsen has a relatively quarantined approach to fame and celebrity. There’s a mildly cringey line about “Buzzfeed buzzards, and TMZ crows” in her song “LA Hallucinations” – from 2015’s critically adored Emotion – but Jepsen largely lives away from the barrels of paparazzi lenses. A change in her hairstyle, such as the bleached blonde bob she sports on the cover of Dedicated, could render her anonymous and allow her free passage in daily life.

Although she is the creator of some of the past decade’s best pop songs, I rarely think of Carly Rae Jepsen, The Person, behind them. She seems to exist away from chart trends and the memes that propel her from singer-songwriter to queen of whatever Twitter decides to crown her on any given day. In this bubble, she’s listening to records and dating people she’s pined over for years, before going home to tear apart her every romantic insecurity over a hook so appealing you barely notice the sound of her heart shattering.

After placing third on Canadian Idol in 2007, Jepsen released the impossibly catchy “Call Me Maybe” in 2011, a viral song whose symptoms spread globally. The pressure to profit from its popularity led to Kiss, a disappointing album that prompted Jepsen, then 27, to pause and take stock.

Emotion, Jepsen’s third record, came from a need for absolute creative control after she had fallen victim to the machine. Once Kiss’s short shadow faded from view, Jepsen set to work on Emotion, which has forever changed people’s minds about what “the ‘Call Me Maybe’ girl” is capable of.

Four years later, rather than chasing trends, or attempting to mimic the specific weirdness of newcomer Billie Eilish or the melismatic singing of Halsey, Jepsen has re-emerged with a fresh look, a similar sound and only the heights of her past work to measure up to. She comes close, but doesn’t quite get there.

In many ways, Dedicated feels like Emotion’s twin, except the two are born years apart. The shimmering disco synths and ’80s references remain, and she’s once again called upon a contingent of cool producers and co-writers, this time including Jack Antonoff, Captain Cuts and MNDR. But because of the time that’s passed since its predecessor, Dedicated feels slightly stunted: it’s not a record that will convert anyone new to Jepsen’s camp. Those of us who long ago pitched our tents there won’t be leaving any time soon, but we’re well aware of her previous mastery and we know she can achieve it again. Moments on this record reinforce that belief.

The Antonoff-produced “Want You in My Room” is a clear highlight, lifting the saxophone that signalled the beginning of the Emotion era into a roomy pop ballad. Whereas the bulk of her work is about the interior – confessional stories better suited to a diary than a conversation – here Jepsen goes for the straight-up late-night text:

I want you in my room

On the bed, on the floor

I wanna do bad things to you

Slide on through my window

It says a lot about Top 40 puritanism that this song is a talking point on a record co-written and performed by a grown woman. Perhaps it’s that female popstars have, historically, been so controlled and infantilised – lyrics by the likes of Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus only venture beyond holding hands and kissing when these artists seek controversy or a dramatic image recalibration. Or perhaps it’s that Jepsen’s repertoire of high-energy songs about crushes and break-ups have locked her into a state of perpetual adolescence, like a teen bedroom cast in amber.

Later, on the scene-stealing “Everything He Needs”, she describes sex as a “sweat disco”. It’s a work of lyrical genius, particularly because it occurs in a song about how, in our most carnal state, we reframe “want” for “need”. She and co-writers CJ Baran, Ben Romans and MNDR are “total musical theatre nerds”, said Jepsen in an i-D interview: the song samples “He Needs Me”, sung by Shelley Duvall’s Olive Oyl to Robin Williams’ Popeye in the 1980 musical. There, it was written by Harry Nilsson as a delicate ditty; here, it’s set to funky keys and includes a pitch-shifted spoken-word section listing all the ways Jepsen is (or wants to be) needed: “not just physically / Emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, sexually / All the ways”.

The exhaustion of thinking and chasing and extrapolating a lover’s feelings catch up to Jepsen on “The Sound”, an unassuming track that pulls plenty from Giorgio Moroder’s legacy. It serves as a statement for the record, both lyrically (“Love is more than telling me you want it / I don’t need the words / I want the sound”) and sonically: the idea that electronic and pop music are inherently artificial proves unable to hold water when faced with the deluge of Jepsen’s generous emotional honesty.

Jepsen’s approach to music-making is as obsessive and hyper-analysed as a kid with a crush. To channel her references, which include ABBA, the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, she travelled between writers and producers in New York, Sweden and Nicaragua to pull together more than 200 songs that were whittled down to the 15 on Dedicated.

With its lazy drum-machine beat, new single “Too Much” made the cut. It’s a song about excess, and admitting to a need for more – more to drink, more to obsess over, more love to chase. And while Jepsen shares credits with three co-writers here, to assume the craftsmanship of this record is owed to her pool of mostly male producers would be an insult to her contribution. The opening moments of the “Too Much” video show her tinkering with a synth and drum machine, as if to demonstrate her input or to demand her due credit.

While hopping between those studios in mid-2017, Jepsen gave an interview where she said the record’s working title (and spirit) was “Music to Clean Your House To”. After coming off the highs of a contagious disco streak, this description threatened to bring the Jepsen hype back down to earth, to lower expectations. But while the record fizzes in parts and threatens to go flat in others, it works its own magic like a homemade vinegar and baking soda cleaning solution, retaining its core power and effectiveness.

In a recent GQ profile, Jepsen said, “I think a lot of music can … want to be a little too cool. I am unabashedly uncool.” Shaking off any self-consciousness, Jepsen is still drawn to exploring love and infatuation, heartbreak and the pulling-together that comes after it, devoid of any shame or embarrassment. In this way, her closest parallel might be country-pop singer Kacey Musgraves, whose clever lyrics and earnest delivery took a few years to cut through and take hold. Or perhaps it’s Lana Del Rey, who similarly was first assumed to be a kind of temporary viral phenomenon but has since shown staying power, with a singular perspective that’s earned her a reputation as a sensitive and sentimental pop auteur.

“Party for One”, Dedicated’s first single, begins with a sense of resignation about solo life, before positioning the idea of “making love to myself” as a validating, nourishing way to become whole again. In its video, a group of lonely hearts’ club members are forced out of their solitude by a power outage in their hotel. When they convene in the lobby, the gathering turns into a dance party, like a Carly Rae Jepsen concert in miniature, where romancing yourself turns into a way to connect, rather than a difficult mission requiring bravery. The power of Jepsen’s music is that both options – loving alone or indulging with others – are equally fulfilling.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "Poppy love". Subscribe here.

Brodie Lancaster
is a critic and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine.