Album Review: Carly Rae Jepsen - The Loneliest Time
And it is, perhaps, because I am a product of a particular time that, when an album cover features the arguably iconic “Parental Advisory” warning sticker, my eyes drift toward that before anything else.
It is, perhaps, the teenage boy in me, who came of age in the mid-1990s, still experiences the tiniest of thrills from listening to something with that distinction—the boy who, in 1994, managed to purchase a cassette copy of the Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral—and outside of my fascination with the surprisingly infectious single, “Closer,” was completely unprepared for just how uneasy the rest of the album would make me feel at such a young age.
It is, perhaps, the teenage boy in me who, for a time, would be more attracted to albums if they did, in fact, feature the “Parental Advisory” sticker on them—either part of the album’s artwork, or as an actual sticker adhered to the hard plastic of the cassette or CD case, regardless of if the music found within was subjectively good or interesting.
The teenage boy in me who came of age during the golden age of gangsta rap—where the music being made was seen as dangerous; retrospectively, it is easy to see that it was simply a reflection of different lived experiences, and in many cases, it was designed to be shocking simply for the sake of doing so.
Roughly three months ago, after an ambitious rollout for the single “Western Wind” in the spring, and much speculation that a new album announcement was imminent, Carly Rae Jepsen revealed the release date and cover art for The Loneliest Time, and perhaps it is the teenage boy in me but, in looking at the album’s cover in Jepsen’s Instagram post about the album and when it was set to arrive, my eyes immediately found the small “Parental Advisory” sticker tucked in the bottom right corner.
In an exchange with my friend about the announcement of the new album, I mentioned to her that I was curious about the appearance of the “Parental Advisory” warning found on the cover, and shortly after that, I shared a screenshot of an Instagram story from writer and all-around Carly Rae Jepsen subject matter expert Hanif Abdurraqib—his comment on the appearance of the warning was, “Oh, I see we getting Parental Advisory Carly.”
My friend’s response was surprised that Jepsen had not released an album thus far in her career that included one.
And perhaps, after well over three decades following the introduction of the “Parental Advisory” warning label for music, it no longer carries the weight or draws the attention it once did—perhaps it no longer means the music found within the album is as dangerous as it once was, or that it is the kind of cassette or CD you have to sneak into your home and listen to through the safety of a pair of headphones.
Perhaps the use of profanity, or the depiction of violent or sexual situations is commonplace now in the landscape of pop music, where we have not become ‘numb’ to it per se, but where it is no longer as surprising to hear for people who have grown up throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Perhaps, in the era of streaming services, where individual tracks are marked with an advisory “E” logo to warn listeners of possibly objectionable content, the “Parental Advisory” warning featured on an album cover is something the eye no longer drifts to upon an initial glance.
I have, in the past—the recent past, even, referred to Carly Rae Jepsen’s music as borderline ‘wholesome.’
Following her initial rise to success with “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen’s last two studio albums—Emotion and Dedicated, and their respective b-side collections, all arguably masterpieces in their own right, have operated from, borrowing an expression from Hanif Abdurraqib’s assessment of Jepsen’s songwriting, the “Kingdom of Desire,” which is to mean Jepsen writes from a place of longing, or of want. There is an ambiguous ‘you’—and off-stage character that she pines for, with songs often leading up to a big moment, or a revelation of desire and want, but never taking you further to what happens next.
Coy, and occasionally suggestive in her lyricism, the most provocative (and horniest) Jepsen has been thus far in her songwriting is when she, infamously, coos “I wanna do bad things to you,” in the song “Want You in My Room,” from 2019’s Dedicated.
And I was curious about the appearance of the “Parental Advisory” warning sticker on the cover of The Loneliest Time, wondering if it applied to only a few songs, or if, across the board, this did truly usher in some kind of new era of songwriting for Jepsen—if she, like Taylor Swift did on “Betty,” would build a song around a chorus that involved something along the lines of “Tell me to go fuck myself.”
That is not the case—it is not a disappointment, though, and also given Jepsen’s penchant for being relatively coy or suggestive in her lyricism without feeling the need to cross the line, it is not exactly surprising either, though the inclusion of the warning sticker, whatever size it winds up when slapped onto the cover, is puzzling as it warns of one, slightly out of character (for her) moment in The Loneliest Time’s opening track, “Surrender My Heart,” where she explains, to the off-stage ‘you,’ the object of her desire, that she’s “trying not to fuck this up.”
And perhaps a little more surprising, or at least more sexually direct—at least, compared to the implications from “Want You in My Room,” is the bold exclamation near the end of the album on “Shooting Star,” where Jepsen, playing against type, sings, “I might sleep with you tonight—if you wanna know why? ‘Cuz it’s summertime, and you look fine.”
If The Loneliest Time is not the beginning of a new, “Parental Advisory” worthy era for Jepsen as both a performer and songwriter, then what is it—because the more I have sat with it, I also feel like it is not exactly the rumination on loneliness as an idea that was implied within the brief caption on Instagram when she revealed the album’s title, cover, and release date: “I’m quite fascinated with loneliness. It can be really beautiful if you turn it over and look at it. Just like love, it can cause some extreme human reactions.”
So if it is not either of those things, then what is The Loneliest Time?
It is, like both Dedicated and Emotion before it, an often dazzling collection of 80s-inspired, synth-heavy, shimmering pop songs—though it is, perhaps, a more restless album as a whole than its predecessors, with Jepsen turning a little more inward than she has in the past, and also oscillating further away (in both directions) from the “Kingdom of Desire”’s center she often writes from within.
It is a distinction, albeit one that many might not often give consideration to, that I have tried articulating in the past, though I am uncertain how good of a job I may or may not have done, but there is an arguable or at least to me a subjective difference between “contemporary popular music,” and “pop music.” And I often, perhaps too often, write about the idea of a convergence, and what forms in the space when two, or more, things begin to converge upon one another—here, there is simply a place where those things overlap, as what is regularly considered “pop music” is often contemporarily speaking, rather popular.
You can, of course, make “popular music” that is inherently not “pop music.”
“Pop music,” as a genre, or descriptor, is often bold, bright, and perhaps dizzying at times in just how kaleidoscopic it can sound. It is a style of music that, at times, does not take itself too seriously, because it is, and more than likely always has, been a genre that wants to have fun.
And if it’s pop music that is done well, the fun is palpable—and in the fun that the music itself appears to be having, it wants you, as the listener, to have that fun as well.
The Loneliest Time is not a perfect album—but even in the moments when it falters, or when there are songs that can be a little less interesting or not as well executed as others, it is an album that is spilling over with a kind of unbridled exuberance—it’s a fun album, and it wants you to have fun while you listen.
Musically, while both Dedicated, and especially Emotion found Jepsen working within arrangements and textures that, in part, were an homage to the synth-heavy, bright, FM radio-friendly pop music of both the 1980s and into the early 1990s—and as surprising, at first, as it was for The Loneliest Time to feature the “Parental Advisory” label on its front cover, it is more surprising the musical risks that she takes throughout. The risk, though, with those risks is that there are moments on the album, once it gains momentum, that it can appear just a little less cohesive than her previous efforts, but even when it lacks some kind of unifying sonic thread from beginning to end, the drastic shifts in tone are always compelling.
And it was the album’s first two singles that are among the songs that arguably take some of the more considerable musical risks on The Loneliest Time—and if they aren’t among the riskiest, they are songs that are not entirely indicative of the album’s tone, as a whole.
It took me a minute to figure out a way into the first single from The Loneliest Time, the literally and figuratively breezy “Western Wind.” And it took that minute, not because it is a difficult, or inaccessible song—far from it, but it was, and perhaps this is on me for setting any kind of expectations or placing any kind of demands on an artist, but it was not what I had anticipated hearing from Jepsen’s return.
The song itself was part of a mysterious, slow rollout, including a billboard appearing the week before she debuted the song live as part of her set at Coachella in April of this year—“Western Wind” was then officially released as a single in May.
And, perhaps, similarly to Jepsen playing against type with the utterance of the word “fuck” one time on the album, and the boasting of a slightly more brazen and direct lyric as opposed to the suggestive and imaginative writing she’s used in the past, “Western Wind” plays against type in the sense that it is so relaxed and restrained in how it comes together.
Produced and co-written by the former member of Vampire Weekend, Rostam Batmanglij, with whom Jepsen previously worked with on the Emotion track “Warm Blood,” “Western Wind” is, at least in part, inspired by the loss of her grandmother during the onset of the pandemic, the distance between where she has been living in California, and the rest of her family, still based in Canada. In an interview with Crack, Jepsen herself admits that a song like this, stylistically, is playing against type with what her audience may have come to anticipate, which is why it was chosen as the album’s first single.
“It was so opposite to what I normally do,” she said. “Which is start with the jingle-esque type song, and leave the rest for later.”
Structurally, “Western Wind” swirls and simmers, but at no point is there any indication that Jepsen and Batmanglij will let go of the tight restraints they have on it and let it soar. And I didn’t dislike the song the first time I heard it—I think I was just a little surprised at how quiet and pensive it is, overall, compared to the kind of songs Jepsen has truly built her career out of over the last five or six years.
Jepsen’s fall tour in support of The Loneliest Time is skipping a Twin Cities date—she did make a seemingly disorganized appearance in Minneapolis in June as part of the city’s Pride Week festivities, and at that time, “Western Wind” was the only new song in her 70 minute set. And admittedly, hearing it transformed into a live setting, albeit a bit chaotic and confusing, did help me appreciate the song more than I did when it was released at the beginning of May.
The person who interviewed Jepsen for Crack draws comparisons to both Stevie Nicks as well as James Taylor, and I can see it, a little, specifically in the sun-soaked warmth of the keyboards, and the gently strummed acoustic guitar—there is a hint of the “Laurel Canyon” sound, just on the verge of becoming kaleidoscopic through a 2022 pop music lens, though it never really makes it to that point, which is okay. It is a slow burn of a song—musically, that’s intentional, but as a song, standing on its own, it also took hearing it within the album's context to really find and understand the smoldering groove that is just rippling through it.
Lyrically, “Western Wind” also finds Jepsen working against type, specifically in her stepping out, temporarily, from the “Kingdom of Desire,” and writing from a place of warm, evocative nostalgia and longing—but a longing for something outside of a romance that is just on the cusp. It’s a bittersweet kind of song that almost topples into melancholy, but stops just short as Jepsen steers the song’s hypnotic and infectious chorus into something that walks the line between a reluctant acceptance and something celebratory. “Comin’ in like a western wind—do you feel home from all directions,” she asks as the song’s arranging gently spins around her. “First bloom, you know it’s spring. Reminding me, love, that it’s all connected.”
And so often, with pop music, there is a sense of playfulness or whimsy to it, which, at least for me, can be something difficult to navigate around and take seriously as a listener—this is something that Jepsen has occasionally wandered into with her songwriting in the past with specific lyrics, but she has never fully leaned into it the way she has with the song “Beach House,” which was issued as the second single from The Loneliest Time, released three days after the album’s announcement, along with an accompanying video.
And I was, perhaps, after my first viewing of the video for “Beach House,” uncertain how I felt about it—the song, specifically, because I feared that, in the song’s narrative, adapted literally line for line into the video, that it might not be able to stand on its own without the visual component. It is, inherently, the most playful song on The Loneliest Time, and certainly one of the album’s more whimsical, self-aware moments.
Similar to my experience with “Western Wind,” with regards to me requiring a little more time than I might have expected for the song to grow on me, or at least learning how to appreciate it, it did take up until the release of The Loneliest Time for me to find a way to enjoy “Beach House” for what it is. Because it plays so drastically against Jepsen’s type—not indicative of what the album sounds or feels like once you have the chance to sit within it, “Beach House” does truthfully seem a little out of place, or miscast within the album as a whole.
“Beach House” isn’t a bad song—but it is also not one of the better, or at least more compelling tunes found within The Loneliest Time. It’s among the shorter of those included on the album (many of the songs are under three minutes), and once it begins, it is quite unrelenting in its rhythm, barely, if at all, coming up for air. Built around a slinking groove, it’s propelled forward by rollicking layers of percussive elements, a low and rumbling synthesizer bass line, and big, airy strums of the electric guitar that drift through the atmosphere, “Beach House”’s verses see Jepsen recalling a series of failed attempts at dating—a picnic where the boy in question’s mom made the food, a married man, someone who said that he loved her after the first date, et al., which provides the set up for the chorus, which serves as the punchline to the song.
Even if it isn’t one of the most thought-provoking tunes, it, also like “Western Wind,” is wildly infectious—mainly in the chorus, which, also like “Western Wind,” seems like it could, and perhaps should, blast off to someplace much higher, but remains surprisingly restrained with just a little more enthusiasm and flourishes coming in to underscore it. “Boys around the world, I want to believe that when you chase a girl, it’s not just hunting season,” Jespen sings in time with the quickly-paced beat of the song. “‘I can see the future’—say it like you mean it. ‘I got a beach house in Malibu, and I’m probably going to hurt your feelings.’”
Throughout The Loneliest Time, there is the occasional song that just, despite the efforts that Jepsen has put in, doesn’t work—the first of which, unfortunately, comes pretty early on in the album. The second track, “Joshua Tree,” is a startling come down from the shimmering, incredible heights that the album begins with on “Surrender My Heart.”
“Joshua Tree” opens with a taut, slithering electric guitar riff before Jepsen's voice comes floating in above it—and the thing about the song is that it begins with a lot of potential, especially as she takes the short first verse into what is, commonly, referred to as the pre-chorus, and it seems like the song is headed somewhere huge.
Perplexingly, as it heads into the chorus, the song winds up not going anywhere at all really—never leaving the ground as it is implied in the gradual build-up, and instead, finds Jepsen spending a bulk of her time in the chorus wordlessly singing “Da da da da da da,” in rhythm with the percussion that comes in to back her.
Closer to The Loneliest Time’s halfway point, “Sideways” is another one of the few misfires on the album—a little more thoughtful than “Joshua Tree,” but it is one of the less enthusiastic tunes included here, bringing the pacing and rhythm of the album down from the interesting and exciting places it reaches on “Talking to Yourself” and “Far Away,” to a breezy saunter that just doesn’t exactly land; similarly, in the album’s second half, “So Nice,” which is the name of the fall tour Jepsen is out on in support of The Loneliest Time, is another song that, even with the surprisingly funk-oriented, post-disco groove it finds for itself once it gets going in the refrain, brings things down to a slower, breezier pacing that doesn’t connect with me—the extended intro of a voice singing “La la la la la,” did it no favors in terms of setting a captivating tone.
And there are, of course, as there often are with literally every album I encounter, regardless of whether it is something I am listening to with the intent of writing about it, or something I am listening to purely for enjoyment, songs that I am far more impressed by, or drawn to, than others. The Loneliest Time is no exception, but in the space between those songs, and the songs that I am less interested in, or find less compelling to explore, there are tunes that land in the middle—here, those fall within the album’s final third, with “Bad Thing Twice,” and the aforementioned “Shooting Star.”
It is, perhaps, on “Bad Thing Twice” when I can hear the Stevie Nicks comparison that Jepsen receives in her interview with Crack—it is one of the more subdued songs on the album, and there is a hard to articulate earnestness to it that, even when the lyrics did cause me actually to wince (the extension of the line “You’re my little rock skipper” before the chorus), makes it work. It, like “Shooting Star,” is what I can call “vibe-based” songs on the album where they, despite whatever effort was put into the lyricism, are less about the words, a little more about music, and completely about the tone they present. With “Bad Thing Twice,” it is one of the few moments in The Loneliest Time that is swoony and a little hazy, with Jepsen letting the song and its strong, but not overpowering rhythm and arranging, washing over you.
Most apparent in the album’s titular track, there is, possibly more so than on previous outings, a strong homage to, or the strong influence of disco on The Loneliest Time—you can also hear it on “Shooting Star,” the album’s most carefree song about its aesthetic. It, like “Bad Thing Twice,” is structured around a bubbling, relentless rhythm. A warbled, heavily affected, quickly strummed electric guitar lays the groundwork, before the percussion finds its way, along with a low, rumbling bass, and wonky synthesizer blips floating around throughout. Based on the lyrics alone—again, not the most essential element of the song, I realized—“Shooting Star” took a little more time until I understood the song's point: to have fun.
And I think that, among Carly Rae Jepsen’s canonical works—specifically Emotion, Dedicated, and their compendiums of b-sides, she knows how to write a song that grabs your attention, or sets the tone, but what is, perhaps, more important, is that she know where to sequence those songs within the album’s running. I would argue, and I am uncertain who, if anyone, would contest, that “Run Away With Me,” the dazzling, Technicolor, and iconic opening track from Emotion, complete with its soaring saxophone solo as it opens, should be ranked among the collective best “track one, side ones” of the last decade.
The same argument could be made about the songs that respectively find their place at the top of Dedicated, and it’s “Side B,” though neither the smoldering, pensive “Julien,” nor the highly energetic and blindingly bright “This Love Isn’t Crazy” (yes, an unfortunate inclusion of ablest language in the title) reach the towering heights that Jepsen so easily climbed on “Run Away With Me,” which as a song, served as a reintroduction to her, as a songwriter and performer, to prove to listeners she was so much more than “Call Me Maybe,” but it also served as a thesis, or mission statement for Emotion as a whole, w/r/t Jepsen’s narratives constructed from within the “Kingdom of Desire.”
“Surrender My Heart,” the song that flawlessly opens The Loneliest Time, is the kind of song that was written to be the album’s opening track—there is no other place it could fall on the album and be as effective as it is, and structurally, it somehow finds the space between the infectious and slow-burning “Julien,” and the dizzying bombast of “Run Away With Me,” and manages to incorporate both extremes, and does so with a kind of preternatural grace that it is simply amazing.
The song, just shy of three minutes, manages to do so much and take you to so many places within that little amount of time, opens with two opposing synthesizer sounds—one, lower in tone, a little antiquated and wonky sounding, plunks out the opening melody, while another synth provides a much lighter tone, swirling and panning back and forth over the top of it. It’s not skeletal, or sparse, even with just these two sounds playing off of one another, because there is such a richness in how they come together, waiting for Jepsen’s voice to arrive.
In the way that “Surrender My Heart” unfolds, as it builds up to the moment where it explodes right where you want it to, and when you want it to, is, perhaps, predictable if you have any kind of prior knowledge of the way Jepsen navigates writing a song—and a song like this one, but even it its slight predictability, there is something absolutely thrilling from the way she takes the pensive, and reflective verses, into the song’s pre-chorus, right into the moment when it begins to ascend.
Lyrically, Jepsen sets a tone with “Surrender My Heart” as well; outside of it being one of the album’s finest moments and another utterly flawless opening track—there are moments of storytelling, and of abstraction certainly in her songwriting on The Loneliest Time, but it is an album where she begins to reveal slightly more of herself than she has in the past within some of these songs, and this is certainly one of them.
“So I’ve been trying hard to open up,” she begins after a short instrumental introduction. “When I lost someone, it hit me rough. I paid to toughen up in therapy—she said to me, ‘Soften up.’
“Surrender My Heart” is, within the first 40 seconds, where Jepsen both earns and uses the only and only utterance of profanity on The Loneliest Time—“I’m sorry if I pushed your good away, especially when I’m needing you to say,” she continues. “I know you hate that I still test your love. I’m trying not to fuck this up.”
And it’s after pushing herself breathlessly through the song’s pre-chorus, where there is just enough build-up to get the listeners right where they need to be, and right where Jepsen wants us, as she takes just the slightest of pauses and breaths in before the enormity of the exhale as she belts out the titular phase—not asking us to surrender our hearts but demanding we do so, and the song finds itself pulsating rhythmically in the way that it becomes all too easy to get lost in, letting the music pull you out into the darkness and surrender of a dance floor.
Jepson often writes, and often writes well, about the concept of longing—and The Loneliest Time does provide her the opportunity, as a songwriter, to step away from what she has, in the past, spent a bulk of her albums writing about, and turn things inward. And that longing often operates from a place of immediacy—in that moment, that want, always directed at the off-stage, ‘you’ character that is just out of her grasp once again, is the most important thing for her, and as the listener, for us as well.
And, of course, there are moments of visceral longing and want throughout The Loneliest Time—the album’s third advance single, and third track, “Talking to Yourself,” is where Jepsen is most successful at creating this kind of tune.
In, again, just under three minutes, “Talking to Yourself” is arranged in an unrelenting rhythm. She never really comes up for air from the moment it begins—something creates a feeling of urgency that surges through the already quickly-paced song. Coming from a place of longing for what was, and now no longer is, it finds Jepsen reflecting on a relationship from the darkest corners of the “Kingdom of Desire”—“I was always invisible,” she begins as the drums kick in underneath her. “Consequences are difficult to face. We could have been something beautiful, but you made it impossible to stay.”
But within that regret, or remorse, in the wake of the demise of a relationship, as the song builds towards its explosive, glistening chorus, it takes a turn, and Jepsen taps into an embittered, angry feeling, which is something that we do not often hear from her as a writer. “Am I keep you up at night?,” she asks in the lines that lead up to the chorus. “I’ll never let you be, no.”
The conflicted feelings of anger and regret collide within the questions she asks as the infectious, voluminous chorus arrives—“Are you thinking of me when you’re with somebody else,” she implores. “Do you talk to me when you’re talking to yourself? Are you reaching for me—making love to someone else?”
And in contrast to the high-tension emotions coursing through “Thinking of Me,” Jepsen quickly shifts the place with which she is writing from with the track that follows—“Far Away.” Lyrically, an exploration of the distance between the end of a relationship and the hope that comes from a glimmer of a second chance and reconciliation, the longing, and desire on “Far Away” is just as palpable as her distraught is in the song that preceded it.
Musically, “Far Away,” at first listen, appears like the initial place in the album’s run where Jepsen is intentionally slowing the pacing down, as it begins with a light, kind of jaunty, shuffling, and rolling percussive rhythm before the additional elements come tumbling in. However, it is within the chorus where things take off—she never lets it get away from her completely. Working from within a simmering place of reserve, the chorus dazzles both with the heavier tones in synthesizers, and Jepsen’s impressive capabilities at conjuring an undeniable groove from her vocal melodies.
“I’d like to give this love a second try,” she states within the opening of “Far Away,” continuing to nudge toward this attempted reconnection. “If you could put my feet back on the ground, we could try to introduce ourselves. I’d like to get to know you—let me kiss all of these tears comin’ down.”
And even within the way the chorus for “Far Away” surges within a sense of restraint, there is still a sense of immediacy to this need for a second chance with this off-stage character. “Tell me you need me side by side,” she asks. “The sweetest words of my whole life—oh baby, not far away from that conversation.”
The pop ballad, or at least the idea of the pop ballad, is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Carly Rae Jepsen—specifically her output since 2015, when she more or less had to reintroduce herself following the success of “Call Me Maybe,” and arguably, at least for time, could be dubbed an indie pop darling. Emotion, even in what slower moments it has, is the kind of album that maintains a certain level of energy across the board, and it isn’t even really until the b-side companion for Dedicated that a legitimate “pop ballad” from Jepsen comes to mind—the ponderous and dramatic “Heartbeat."
And the only time that Jepsen slows the pacing down, and brings a level of earnest theatricality to a song on The Loneliest Time is its penultimate moments, and the surprisingly (and excellently) titled “Go Find Yourself or Whatever.”
Opening with a pensively strummed and kind of muffled, or muted-sounding electric guitar—the tone, and strumming pattern is truthful reminiscent (and probably a sheer coincidence) of the closing song on Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour; there is also a quiet, rushing sound from a synthesizer underneath that before Jepsen’s airy, melancholic voice comes in, and for the first time, singing about a genuine, tangible heartbreak as opposed to the longing, or want, that comes from the place before a relationship has started, or well after it is over. What’s depicted, and how Jepsen depicts it in “Go Find Yourself,” is raw—not angry, but upset enough to say things we may want to take back but cannot. There is an anguish still recent and tender, and the song finds her trying, but often unable or uncertain, how to work through the tumultuous and complicated feelings.
It is less of a “Kingdom of Desire,” but more of a fallen kingdom.
“Tell me that your mind’s been changing—I tell you that I’m no good at goodbyes,” she begins, then, later, in the second verse, “Tell me that we’ll meet up someday—I tell you that I’m no good at telling lies. Maybe when my heart’s done breaking, then I could forgive what you tried.”
And like the idea of the “pop ballad,” I do not often associate a truly “sad” song, or an extraordinarily sorrowful moment in a song with Carly Rae Jepsen, but like pulling off the slow burn of the ballad with “Go Find Yourself or Whatever,” she manages to write from an unexpected and honest place of very real sadness and remorse in the chorus. “I wake up hollow—you made me vulnerable. So go find yourself, or whatever. I hope it treats you better than I could do…and I’ll wait for you.”
If The Loneliest Time, taken as a whole, is about Jepsen playing against type with what she’s writing about, it is also an album that is about sharp contrast in how those ideas are brought to life—the most startling contrast comes in how the final two songs on the proper version of the album ends: the devastating ballad, followed by a dizzying, disco-infused duet.
The album’s titular track, and final single released in advance of the album in full, pairs Jepsen with a seemingly unlikely singing partner—Rufus Wainwright, and it finds Jepsen ending the album’s intended sequencing (not including the obligatory appearance of bonus tracks through various streaming platforms of ‘deluxe edition’ releases) on a somewhat hopeful note, or, at the very least, not entirely hopeless.
The connection between Jepsen and Wainwright, aside from her, perhaps, being a fan of his, or having a respect for his work, is that they are both Canadian—and his inclusion on the song is at first glance unlikely because he both operates from a different corner of contemporary popular music, and he is also not exactly a household name. The son of singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, he rose to prominence in the late 90s through a run of beloved, esoteric baroque pop albums that earned him a cult following.
Wainwright’s presence, though, because he is both not a household name and because he has worked from a different end of the contemporary popular music spectrum during his career from where Jepsen resides, was met, at least in conversations I had with friends, with skepticism, and flat out confusion.
“The Loneliest Time,” itself, as a song, if anything, is a jubilant and iridescent-sounding tune to place at the end of the album—a last gasp that is big, bold, and fun. Musically, Jepsen has already revealed her interest in post-disco rhythms and textures with “Shooting Star.” Still, here she really goes for a true homage, and it works surprisingly well—campy, self-aware, and thankfully not derivative of what has inspired it.
And what I have found, now that both the song “The Loneliest Time” as well as the album of the same name, are both out in the world, is that there is some minor contention about the title itself—and there is, possibly, an implication from the word “loneliest” appearing in both places, that this album, and this song, presumably might have sounded different. I am hesitant to say that calling the album The Loneliest Time is a misnomer because the songs were written during a legitimately lonely and isolating time for Jepsen (2020 and 2021), but they do arrive sounding less lonely and more about a restless spirit and a desire than anything else. And the title track itself, at least in its arranging and pacing, provides a juxtaposition to the idea that loneliness needs to be something somber sounding—lyrically, it is a give and take between Wainwright and Jepsen where, after the dust settles following the demise of a relationship, the two parties involved wonder if there is a chance for reconciliation.
Jepsen and Wainwright share the duties of who sings lead at the start of each verse, but each verse begins with both of them recounting “one of those bad dreams”—in Jepsen’s, she sings, “Where we’re standing on your street. I quit smoking those cigarettes, but I’m never getting over it.” Wainwright’s is a little more literal and less abstract—“You were ten feet in front of me. I went running, but I couldn’t catch—just the shadow of your silhouette.”
When she is writing, and singing, from the place of want and longing she most often does, there is never anyone to offer a response to Jepsen’s desires. And so even as miscast as I feel like Wainwright might be as a co-protagonist in “The Loneliest Time,” I am unable to name another male voice that might have served the song better—his voice, for me, has always been acquired, and it doesn’t always land within the context of this song’s arranging. Regardless, his presence does offer up the other side to the story, and in this case, at least, the intentions mirror Jepsen’s—in her verse, she offers up, “Our love—we never finished it”; in his, he replies, “This time, love, we’re gonna get it right.”
And I have, in the past, fallen into the trap of criticizing the critic.
I am uncertain what, if anything, it gets me in the end—I would like to think that it is not an attempt, on my part, to convince anyone I am smarter than other music writers, or that when there is something I disagree with, that I am “right” and that they, within the context, are “wrong.”
But it is more than likely a little bit of both of those things.
On the day of its release, Pitchfork published its review of The Loneliest Time—giving it a 6.5 out of 10, accompanied by a short piece written by Olivia Horn, who had previously covered other pop releases for the site like the “Taylor’s Version” reissue of Red from last November, and Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour in the spring of 2021.
Pitchfork, as a site, or an entity, is not the taste-making or breaking bastion that it once was, and perhaps thinks it still is in some way—and Carly Rae Jepsen would have a career regardless of how much press, or positive analysis they gave of her previous albums, but upon the release of Emotion in 2015, they championed her as an indie pop queen, giving high marks to the record, it accompanying b-sides EP from 2016, and to Dedicated.
The site hasn't exactly turned on her, which as a whole, Pitchfork has been wont to do with certain artists they once revered, and I understand that the numerical score albums receive often does not completely align with the write-up an album is given, but within the case of Horn’s quick take on The Loneliest Time, it comes across like she chose not to listen to the entire album, or at least did not allow the whole album to inform her assessment of it, and in doing so, missed the point of it.
The criticism is that in her effort to “diversify her portfolio,” the album is unfocused, and that the “loneliness” Jepsen speaks of in the title is not the dominant emotion. The latter I would agree with—an album created out of a time of loneliness, yes, but it is inherently about the extreme ends of want and longing. Still, I do take issue, or will at least be defensive of the notion that it is an unfocused album.
Working with a large stable of producers and co-writers, as Jespen has always done in the past, admittedly, there is less of a strong connectivity from song to song on this album, but the other side of that argument is that we, as the audience, already place entirely too many demands on the artist we love or admire, and we cannot expect that Jepsen will make another record that sounds as tightly connected, sonically speaking, as Emotion. If anything, the restlessness of the album’s sound overall is born out of the last few years of isolation, and the urgency to share as many ideas as possible, regardless of how different they might be from one another.
Across the proper album’s 13 tracks, or the expanded, “deluxe” edition’s additional three, bringing the total to 16, The Loneliest Time credits over a dozen names in terms of production—some songs, like “Western Wind” and “Go Find Yourself or Whatever” are credited solely to one person, while tunes like “Surrender My Heart” or “Far Away,” involve three names attached to them. This could result in quite literally “too many cooks in the kitchen,” but how it ends up is, yes, there are a lot of folks behind the boards on the album, but because the involvement is split up between a few songs here and there per name, or production team, The Loneliest Time is, if I may continue to exert a flimsy metaphor, like pot luck, where of all the things that have been provided, some of them are going to resonate a little more than others.
If anything, The Loneliest Time, when it works, it really works (the songs that lean heavily into the synth-pop are the ones that I think are the best of this collection), or when it is less successful in certain moments, it is Jepsen’s most ambitious album w/r/t putting herself out there and being both fearless enough in how personal some of these songs can be, but how much she tries to play against type or expectation in favor of something new or drastically different.
Because The Loneliest Time is, at its core, an album created during a difficult period for all of us, including Jepsen, her lyricism here is slightly less based within her romantic foibles of the past when compared to songs included in her previous efforts. Love, and the many sides to it—good and bad—still provide a lot of inspiration for a lot of the songs here, and even though I had my misgivings about some of the songs where she pushes herself into other avenues of songwriting, like the scathing, self-aware humor of “Beach House,” the sepia-toned, bittersweet reflections on “Western Wind,” or even where the lyricism takes a back seat to the overall vibe of the song (“Shooting Star”), like the surprising array of production and arranging, these sharp turns in to new lyrical territory are admirable.
It is well known at this point that when Jepsen is in preparation for an album, she writes more songs than she needs to—in the past, she has allegedly written close to 200 in the sessions for both Emotion and Dedicated—some of which, obviously, wind up on the album; some of which will be selected for placement on the accompanying “side B” companion album, usually released the following year; and some will never see the light of day, or become the subject of lore and chatter on the internet amongst Jepsen’s most hardcore fans.
Because The Loneliest Time is such a diverse album in terms of the sonic ground it covers, and pushes the previously established boundaries out further than before, I am uncertain what her audience could expect from a b-sides compendium a year from now, that is, assuming she releases one. Again, we ask so much, and at times demand so much, from artists, and the expectation that she follows through with this for a third time is, perhaps, placing too much pressure and presumption on her part.
Jepsen revealed that she did write fewer songs for The Loneliest Time—only around 100, with 13 being selected for the “proper” album, with three additional songs turning up through various other editions of the record, including import editions, a physical release at Target, and on streaming services.
Of the three, the one that is placed at the very end, “Keep Away,” is the weakest of the bunch—it is by no means unlistenable, but with its slower tempo and even slower burning bittersweet, remorseful feelings of a relationship that has long since ended, and the idea of self-preservation in the wake of that dissolution, it winds up lacking focus and any kind of real enthusiasm, making it the sort of bonus track, or outtake from an album where, after hearing it, you proclaim, “Oh, I see why this is a b-side.”
From an instrumentation standpoint alone, “No Thinking Over The Weekend” is among Jepsen’s most compelling and unique, regardless of whether it is a song that found a home on an album’s “proper” release, a b-sides collection, or as a bonus track tacked on at the end. It, too, is slower paced, shuffling along lightly, and gently, like a cool breeze, and accentuating that feeling is the presence of a wind instrument arrangement that both figuratively and literally floats through the song.
The song’s musicality is smooth—in truth, I could, and probably would, listen to an instrumental version of “No Thinking Over The Weekend” on repeat throughout the day. And even with its breezy, lighter aesthetic—perhaps it is the watery, warbled-sounding synthesizer that opens the song up—there is something inexplicably somber about it how it sounds, and even in the soulful, borderline sensual, though also kind of quiet and restrained way Jepsen sings.
“Anxious,” the first to arrive after the album’s closing track, is the best of this trio of outtakes, and it is the kind of song that is good; it continues to show what a fantastic songwriter and performer Jepsen is—that even her b-sides are as good as if not better (in this case, it’s the if not better) than some of the tunes that found their way into the album. Sonically, it’s reminiscent of Emotion in terms of its heavy usage of glistening, 80s-inspired synthesizers, backed by a bass line that throbs. It shimmers, yes, but there is something that casts a bit of a shadow over “Anxious.” It isn’t a dark song, lyrically anyway, but there is something that broods and courses through it that is difficult to articulate. Jepsen matches that kind of slithering energy though with her writing, which finds her returning to a kind of coy, slightly subdued sexuality within the chorus: “I get anxious,” she exclaims. “I need a little headroom. Slow it down, baby—could we move it to the bedroom.”
How much Radiohead do you think Carly Rae Jepsen listens to?
It is a question I did not think I would be asking myself before I first sat down with The Loneliest Time, looked at the track listing on my computer screen, and saw, at the halfway point, a song called “Bends.”
“The Bends,” a slightly archaic expression to describe what is now called “Decompression Sickness,” is a medical condition caused by dissolved gasses emerging from solution as bubbles inside the body tissues during decompression—commonly happening during or soon after a decompression ascent from underwater diving.
The Bends, famously, is also the name of Radiohead’s second full-length album, released in 1995, featuring the titular track where Thom Yorke howls, “Who are my real friends? Have they all got the bends?”
How much Radiohead do you think Carly Rae Jepsen listens to?
“Bends,” arguably the centerpiece to The Loneliest Time, is the album’s most reserved musically and vocally—featuring production by Nathan Jenkins, who works under the alias Bullion, the song’s arranging is glitchy and skittering, based around warm sounding, shimmering synthesizers, and a skipping, electronic rhythm underneath it all—arguably, and it is, perhaps, a reach on my part, sounding reminiscent of Kid A and Amnesiac-era Radiohead instrumentation when the band leaned heavily into the incorporation of more electronic textures.
How much Radiohead do you think Carly Rae Jepsen listens to? It could be a lot, or it could be none at all. Regardless of if my suspicions about the musical inspiration the group might have had on “Bends” are based in any real fact or are just a slightly unhinged theory I concocted as a fan of both artists, the longer I allowed myself to sit with the album as a whole, but mainly focusing on how out of character and fascinating “Bends” is as a song, the more I understood that in, perhaps, overanalyzing its lyricism within the context of The Loneliest Time, I felt like it was both the album’s finest moment, compelling and devastating in its beauty, but also perhaps the key to understanding the multifaceted nature of this collection of songs and where Jepsen was coming from in her writing.
A few times throughout The Loneliest Time, Jepsen becomes a lot less literal in her writing—“Western Wind” is the best example of this in terms of using dreamy ambiguity and heavy, often poetic metaphors within her lyrics. “Bends” is another place where the song unfolds through vague fragments and vivid imagery—you’re close to being able to grasp the whole thing, but that’s not the point. No, the point is that it, like a dream you are just on the cusp of remembering, it continues slipping through your fingers.
Regardless of how much, or how little, if at all, “Bends,” as a song in both title and arrangement, is an homage to Radiohead, or even a reference to the medical afflictions of coming up to the surface entirely too quickly after deep sea diving, it is fitting, I suppose, that the song’s narrative is at least partially set in the ocean, but outside of that, the rest of Jepsen’s lyricism remains intentionally blurry. However, the implications, even within the first few lines, are that she is coming from a place of confusion and anguish that is often found in the space forming between loss and desire.
Even with the use of fragment imagery in “Bends,” there are ideas that become more concrete as they are things that she will return to throughout, like the idea of sensitivity—“Lonely, am I being sensitive?,” she asks in the first verse. “Blue eyes—you are the sensitive one,” a line that she alters slightly when using it a second time later on: “Blue eyes, we are the sensitive ones.”
And there are, like, around three lines in “Bends” that are the most telling, one of which alludes to the loss, or heartbreak, that the song circles around the idea of—“Just say this isn’t happening,” Jepsen implores at the end of the first verse, and then again, shifting the lyric a little in the second verse to, “Tell me this isn’t happening.”
Another is the surprising lyric with the chorus of, “Hold me in your humble grace ‘cause I can feel the darkness sometimes too,” and the inference of all that could mean in terms of a depression, or at least working through a long-lasting sadness or sorrow and the difficulty of keeping that kind of shadow from overtaking things more than it, perhaps, already has.
She follows this line, though, with a glimpse into the need for connection, and how she may ultimately benefit from making it—“I can feel the sun on you.”
And perhaps, like the reach I have made with the mere suggestion that Jepsen is a longtime fan of my favorite band of all time, or at least with “Bends,” was partially inspired by them in the atmosphere created, the lyrical reach, with “Bends,” is in the lyric she sings breathily before reaching the song’s chorus—a question, asked, but not answered.
“How can this be life?”
How can this be life?
Because I think that is the lyric, whether it is truly intentional on Jepsen’s part or not, that becomes the key to really opening up, understanding, and having a deeper appreciation of the nuances of The Loneliest Time. How can this be life? It just is, in all of its beautiful highs and terrible lows, and everything in between.
Within her previous outings, Jepsen has been writing and performing songs from a place of longing—that longing, of course, is a part of life, but there is more out there than that, and The Loneliest Time, even in its missteps, is her pushing herself into exploration of the other facets of her own lived experiences, which we may or may not see as a reflection into our own.
I have, in the past, written about the ideas of the multitudinous nature of an artist or their work, and the duality of a performer, and if there was doubt before, The Loneliest Time is the chance for Jepsen to make it clear that she does, in fact, contain multitudes. How can this be life? It just is, all of our joy and our heartbreak, forever spiraling around us, pushing and pulling us into moments that we wish we could hang onto and moments we would do anything to let go of.
How can this be life? In its restlessness, and want for more, The Loneliest Time is Jepsen opening up the doors to her “Kingdom of Desire,” inviting you inside, and allowing you to see that there is more than just the feelings that we cut to.