The title of Carly Rae Jepsen‘s sixth studio album is The Loneliest Time, remarkably apt for the record, which the singer recorded during the lockdown of the pandemic. For many, that period of our recent history would be the loneliest time, when self-isolation left people alone. Predictably, a project that comes out of such a difficult time means melancholy, even if most songs are up-tempo pop tunes. Jepsen taps into the inherent melancholy in 1980s-inspired synthpop, and as a result, The Loneliest Time is a somewhat somber affair.

For an artist who epitomizes bubbly pop – after all, her breakout was the shiny, almost maniacally exuberant “Call Me Maybe” back in 2012 – Jepsen is willing to sound anxious, sad, and wary. As proven by her excellent third album, Emotion (2015), Jepsen can create some blissfully brilliant pop music with the right collaborators. For The Loneliest Time, she teams up with various talented musicians who continue to build on Jepsen’s affection for the shiny, glossy synth-heavy dance pop.

The album’s lead single, “Western Wind”, sets the stage for the kind of record The Loneliest Time will be. Written with and produced by Vampire Weekend‘s Rostam Batmanglij, the song is a breezy yet subdued pop tune that fairly glides on a slow groove. It’s full of electronic flourishes, drum machines, and heavily produced vocals, but it’s also lilting and gentle. Though its edges are frayed with echoes of folk-pop, it’s still catchy electropop but slightly gauzier, like flowing lace. Jesper’s candy-sweet voice floats prettily, snugly tucked into the lovely filigree swirl.

The sun-dappled tenderness of “Western Wind” is an excellent contrast to the disco-pop of the album’s funky second single, “Beach House”, which is a high point. The embittered lyrics chronicle a line of cads and losers which plague Jepsen’s dating life. Sounding somewhat like Carly Simon‘s classic “You’re So Vain”, Jepsen’s tune has a sense of wit and humor as she sings about a guy who “had a beautiful face / Highly agreed to his place / His wife really had some impeccable taste.” The chorus of male background singers give voice to jerks who admit that they’re no good for our roving pop diva: one guy cops to probably ghosting her, while another scrub hits her up for ten grand, and one guy who boasts of a “lake house in Canada”, confesses that he’ll probably harvest her organs. Though the song is very funny, there’s a weariness and stoic familiarity, as Jepsen ruefully points out, “I’ve been on this ride / This rollercoaster’s a carousel / And I’m getting nowhere.” There’s a mordant comedy to the song (though it’s so well-written and produced, it doesn’t feel like a novelty tune).

The highest profile song on the album is the title track, a duet with chamber pop hero Rufus Wainwright, who joins Jepsen on the dance floor for a 70-s disco-pop homage. Produced by Kyle Shearer, the song sounds like a warm tribute to the roller-disco dance tunes that scored many date nights in the 1970s. Campy strings and a four-on-the-floor rhythm transport listeners to a mirror ball past. Jepsen sounds appropriately yearning on the track, connecting to the lyrics’ sadness;  as her duet partner, Wainwright acquits himself well, his distinct laconic croon adds a feathery shimmer. There’s a knowing camp to the tune, but it’s not played strictly for laughs. Instead, “The Loneliest Time” is moving and fun.

But for the most part, The Loneliest Time is a somewhat muted listen, despite its dancey flourishes. It’s admirable that an artist who started as a pop novelty ten years ago has evolved and grown into a formidable pop singer-songwriter. And thankfully, despite the maturity displayed on the album, Jepsen has avoided making a dour, pretentious ‘serious’ album. There’s a skill in crafting an engaging pop song, and Jepsen doesn’t underestimate that, nor is she dismissive. On a nearly-perfect track like “Surrender My Heart”, Jepsen captures the kind of heart-swelling desire that makes the best and saddest 1980s synthpop unbearably emotional and relatable. On “Surrender My Heart”, the chorus is so beautiful with its longing and desire, and the athematic vocals are so bracing it’s hard to catch one’s breath.

In other places on The Loneliest Time, Jepsen seems unsettled and troubled. Whether it’s trying to figure out a cryptic and distant lover on the strutting new wave tune “Talking to Yourself” or on the reflective “Bad Thing Twice” in which she looks at her self-destructive past, the singer is going through a lot and is using music as a way to process her feelings of angst. Though there are bright spots of disco bliss, for the most part, The Loneliest Time is a rather reflective project. Its creation took place at one of the most uncertain periods of our recent history, and that uncertainty made Jepsen’s songwriting introspective. “It was just me and a cat, and a lot of deep questions about my life decisions,” she says in a Guardian interview. These deep questions aren’t answered on the record, but her struggles make for some beautiful music.

​Peter Piatkowski

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