Carly Rae Jepsen’s latest album, The Loneliest Time, shows the millennial star reinventing her work with a new emotional maturity. By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen.
The Loneliest Time
When Carly Rae Jepsen announced her fifth album on Twitter, she wrote: “I’m quite fascinated by loneliness. It can be really beautiful when you turn it over and look at it. Just like love, it can cause some extreme human reactions.”
The impossibility of human connection and our yearning for it are at the beating heart of The Loneliest Time. Also central are the stories we tell ourselves to stay emotionally safe (very Scorpio). In its glittery opener “Surrender My Heart”, the Canadian pop star sings, “I paid to toughen up in therapy / she said to me ‘soften up’.” It’s a difficult balance between wielding your sword – as Jepsen did on stage, after a tireless online fan campaign, at Lollapalooza in 2018 – and opening your heart, and Jepsen knows it. In the same song, she drops the first F-bomb of her career – as her contemporary Taylor Swift did on 2020’s folklore in another reinvention – but still manages to sound sweet: “I’m trying not to fuck this up.” Anxious-avoidant attachment girlies, assemble!
I’m peppering this with these kinds of pithy and perhaps obnoxious asides not only because I, too, am an anxious-avoidant millennial Scorpio, but because it’s the kind of language and energy that Jepsen taps into with this irresistible, hook-laden record. “I was born in November, you were born in a different moon,” she sings on “Bad Thing Twice”, which boasts the record’s best bass line; on “Shooting Star” and bonus track “No Thinking Over the Weekend”, she explicitly uses star signs as communicative modes.
Tempting as it is to blame incompatibility on astrology, Jepsen is looking at something deeper – a cavalier disaffectedness born from a need to self-protect that rubs against the pure and earnest desire to love and be loved.
There are aspects of Jepsen’s writing that keep her in an eternal state of youth – not least the fact that, in her late 30s, she’s still singing about “boys” and the consuming experiences of crushes and puppy love. This was a strong theme on her celebrated 2015 album Emotion, sometimes to its detriment. Despite the album’s overall excellence – name a better opener than the brilliant sax line introducing that record – the lead single “I Really Like You” while catchy, remains sickly sweet and sophomoric. But this overwhelming sense of limerence has also resulted in some of Jepsen’s best songs, such as 2016’s ecstatic pop masterpiece “Cut to the Feeling”.
Perhaps because of her wide-eyed sincerity, Jepsen never quite shook off a squeaky-clean image, although her previous album, 2019’s Dedicated, took steps towards a more mature image with the masturbation anthem “Party for One” and “Want You In My Room”, an explicit statement of sexual desire.
With each album Jepsen builds a more sophisticated vision of life, fortifying an understanding of the self and of others that includes learning how to be alone without necessarily being lonely, as exemplified in one of her most underrated songs, 2020’s “Solo”.
Emotion-era synth-pop is strong on The Loneliest Time, as on the infectious single “Talking To Yourself”, complete with a wailing guitar solo. Some of the ground is well-trodden, as with “Sideways”, which sounds almost identical to Dedicated track “Everything He Needs”.
But there are steps into different worlds, too – the Minogue-style title track combines strings, disco synths and crisp production with an unlikely collaborator, fellow Canadian Rufus Wainwright. His trademark velvety vocals provide a beautiful foil to Jepsen before she shouts a gleeful invitation: “I’m coming back for you, baby!” It’s one of the album’s strongest and most innovative tracks, heralding an exciting direction with a focus on more complex musical arrangements.
There’s a new sense of relaxation that counters the tendency to self-protectiveness. Lead single “Western Wind”, co-written with former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, is a soft, breezy ode to California backed by a woozy Hammond B3 organ. The ethereal “Bends” swaps California for Mexico, leaning into a similar sense of escapist freedom – “I can feel the sun on you / warm me up the way you do”. These place-specific songs have their roots in the same carefree, pastel dream world as Lorde’s uneven comeback Solar Power last year but, thankfully, this is a far better album.
Jepsen’s lyricism is still largely earnest and can easily swerve into cliche – “I’d like to get to know you”, “I’m no good at goodbyes” – but The Loneliest Time is at its most delightful when she leans into her own weirdness, such as on the playful minor-key single “Beach House”. Based on Jepsen’s experiences using dating apps – she’s just like us! – it’s an esoteric, irreverent exploration of bad dates, man-children and the very real threat of violence, whether emotional or physical, against women.
That last point is obviously not at all funny, but Jepsen approaches the common difficulty of trying to navigate romance in your 30s – and the trauma that can sometimes go with it – with intelligent levity. While the male gang vocals in the “Beach House” chorus don’t gel with the sound of the rest of the album, they make sense in the back half of the song, giving Jepsen a chance to show her dark, oddball sense of humour – I doubt a pop lyric this year will out-weird “I’ve got a lake house in Canada and I’m probably gonna harvest your organs”. The same tongue-in-cheek attitude is evident on the song title “Go Find Yourself or Whatever”, though that song is a much more downbeat sonic affair that allows her sweet vocals to shine.
Jepsen is a prolific songwriter – the Emotion sessions yielded more than 200 songs, and both Emotion and Dedicated were followed by companion B-side collections, the latter of which was album-length. It included some excellent A-side worthy tracks, such as the Jack Antonoff collaboration “Comeback” (Antonoff, arguably the king of modern pop production, is notably absent on The Loneliest Time). If she follows this pattern, it will be interesting to see if The Loneliest Time: Side B contains any further gems.
There are two types of people: those who think Jepsen began and ended with “Call Me Maybe” , and those who recognise her as a unique mastermind of contemporary pop music and a non-ironic cult icon. Whichever camp you fall into, The Loneliest Time is a wonderfully eclectic album from an artist who’s constantly reinventing and pushing her work, and an exercise in exploring different shades of an inescapable human emotion. If this is what loneliness sounds like, maybe it’s not such a bad place to be.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "Flying solo".
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