Six albums in and almost exactly 10 years since the release of her commercial breakout with Kiss, Carly Rae Jepsen’s status as a pop music cult figure of sorts is still going strong. But when you have albums like 2015’s E•MO•TION, which appeared on countless year-end lists and arguably played a big part in today’s 80s-pop revival, to live up to, Jepsen seemingly finds more artistic merit in following her heart wherever it takes her than trying to capture the same magic with diminishing returns. The Loneliest Time, with acoustic balladry, full-blown disco, borderline hyperpop and chilled-out beachside anthems mixed into her typical synth-laden pop anthems, is Jepsen’s least cohesive project yet, but it’s all the more fun for it – we don’t typically hear so much of her personality mixed into her takes on pristine pop templates that could only come from a true student of the game. There aren’t many pop singers who are quite so emotive, able to sound as crushed or as elated as Jepsen can. You know it when you hear the strained break in her voice when she says a word like “destiny,” or drops down to a near-whisper while imagining a perfect date night.
While it’s a very tall order to match the kind of masterful pop euphoria that a Jepsen opener like “Run Away With Me” provided in 2015, “Surrender My Heart” is out to accomplish the same goal. Even the title alone sounds like a cheesy 80s song, and those are the exact kind of pop thrills that Jepsen is an expert at mining and bringing into the modern era. Not afraid of all of the what-ifs and heartbreaks that she dutifully chronicled in her past work, Jepsen sings about opening herself up to love again with some delightfully longing vocalizations. Nobody is going to sound more believable singing “I wanna get closer.” Some massive descending drum hits leading into the synth explosion of the chorus bolster the energy coursing through the track, building up to a section of anthemic gang vocals by its conclusion. “Joshua Tree” is Jepsen at her funkiest, with some top-notch syncopation and one of the best melodies on the whole project during the harmonized pre-chorus, sounding a little sinister before the half-rapped hook. Jepsen’s voice is fit for extravagant instrumentals, but it really pops when she’s backed up by nothing but a raw acoustic loop. The track does feel like it ends too soon – a new motif in the outro feels like it should be building to something explosive, but it fades out. Single “Talking To Myself” ends the cohesive opening run of dance-pop bangers with one of her career best, and one that hasn’t left my head since attending her concert. The song’s success boils down to its little things and attention to detail, whether it’s the moments of silence, the nice touch of the brief guitar solo, or Jepsen at her absolute best when she’s in a place of desperate longing and fresh heartbreak – it opens her voice up to showcase all of its beautiful quirks and imperfections.
While other pop stars would probably kill to have songs like these, the next segment of tracks finds the project’s best song sandwiched by two that don’t feel as effortless and perfect as most of Jepsen’s material have in the past. Both “Far Away” and single “Beach House” have a handful of great qualities, but some transitional moments between verses and choruses lose a bit of her typically all-encompassing vibe and natural flow. The former has a couple of stellar soulful moments in her lower register, while “Beach House” is one of Jepsen’s silliest, most personality-driven songs, something that’s a lot of fun to hear. It works better in the context of the album, dialling the energetic sound of “Sideways” up even further and serving as a transitional moment before a couple more serious and subdued tracks. “Sideways,” however, is Jepsen’s definitive ode to exciting new love, finding nothing that can bring her down in its wake. Mixed perfectly as the bass notes in the back still hit hard and add to its rhythmic quality, it’s reminiscent of her Dedicated track “Everything He Needs” with a couple more jazzier notes. With some huge synth stabs driving things forward and a couple audible giggles in Jepsen’s delivery, it sounds so believably head-over-heels in love.
Jepsen has always been the master of conveying emotion – especially on the more melancholy side – and the track “Bends” finds her applying that to a new topic, as she dedicates the track to her late grandmother. A couple moments where the lyrics are swapped out for vocalizations make the track sound slightly unfinished, but it’s hard to deny the bright synths breaking through the mix when Jepsen sings “I can feel the sun on you.” The track is a little reminiscent of Sky Ferreira’s pop classic “Everything Is Embarrassing,” and its lower-key sound just makes single “Western Wind” sound better in the context of the album as well. The project’s lead single still gives off the vibe of a breezy summer festival, without much to distract from her spectacular vocal tone. There’s some distinctly Toto or Phil Collins energy laced throughout this entire project, as Jepsen explores yet another side of pop. Speaking of which, “So Nice” and “Bad Thing Twice” are more of Carly understanding precisely what makes pop music tick and following the formula down to a science. The futuristic, watery synth tones and Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riffs on the former make it another standout.
The album saves a lot of its best moments for the end. “Shooting Star” is the closest Jepsen has ever come to hyperpop, with a bit of a filter on her vocals and an infectiously bouncy sound. A leftover from her long-rumoured Disco Sweat album, it’s the biggest grower here and the harmonized chorus deserves the biggest dancefloors. “Go Find Yourself or Whatever” sees Jepsen finally giving an appropriately sad backdrop to her standard position of longing, as an almost country-tinged acoustic riff backs up one of her most heartbreaking vocal performances. Things close out with a lengthy disco-pop duet with an incredibly kindred spirit – the fellow Canadian-born, folk music-raised, musical theatre-turned-queer-pop icon that is Rufus Wainwright. It’s simply a lot of fun at the end, as the two indulge their campiest instincts.
Jepsen is easily one of the most consistent artists in the game, even as she experiments with new sounds. She’s able to sound simultaneously vulnerable and confident, or both overtly flirtatious and coy. Once again, for anyone looking to feel something, Jepsen has delivered one of the better collections of pop you’ll hear this year.
Favourite Tracks: Sideways, Talking To Yourself, Shooting Star, Go Find Yourself or Whatever, Surrender My Heart
Least Favourite Track: Far Away