MusicWeekend

The Art Songs of Carly Rae Jepsen

If you’d told radio listeners in 2012 that the singer responsible for “Call Me Maybe” would in seven years be hailed as an eccentric avant-pop totem, nobody would have believed you, but here she is.

The new Carly Rae Jepsen album confirms her evolution from pop star to cult figure. If you’d told radio listeners in 2012 that the singer responsible for “Call Me Maybe” would in seven years be hailed as an eccentric avant-pop totem, nobody would have believed you, but here she is. Her new album, Dedication, out since May, is the work of a pop artist who attracted an indie fanbase, trying to adapt to their tastes and expectations; it’s also the work of an artist trying to become weirder and in fact becoming more conventional. These are the arty, elusive songs fans always wanted, gliding and tingling through gauze, glimmering with arch, wispy indirection.

The strange story of Carly Rae Jepsen is as follows. A graduate of Canadian Idol’s fifth season, she broke through with “Call Me Maybe,” a song whose processed enthusiasm, circular synth stabs, and ringtone-worthy chorus were so blandly, gleefully, maddeningly ubiquitous during the summer of 2012 that she never scored another hit again. Instead, three years later, she crafted Emotion (2015), among the decade’s most seamless of pop albums, of a piece with her previous Kiss (2012) but deeper and weirder in surprising places.

From the ebullient rollerdisco surge of “Run Away With Me” to the lurid wobble of “Warm Blood,” Emotion soars speedily, with an almost embarrassing confidence, through a set of breathlessly sequenced, brightly melodic syntheses of yearning and excitement. She’d absorbed several decades’ worth of devices from ‘90s teenpop and ‘80s dance music, and was attempting to write songs that sounded instantly classic — not familiar or derivative, but aiming to provoke a moment of startling, pleasurable recognition, as you realize how precisely she’s tweaking the tropes (her descending sigh while singing “And I want you/do you want me/do you want me too” in “I Really Like You”, say).

Kiss and Emotion present themselves as blank formal exercises, projecting the exhilaration of efficient functionalism. The latter album earned her a small, loyal, devoted, accidental fanbase — and barely cracked the radio, for her conservative, theoretical ideal of synthpop is about as far from the hip-hop and tropical EDM that constituted mainstream pop in 2015 as it is from what synthpop in the ‘80s actually sounded like.

To wonder why a cult fanbase would congregate around a pop star who isn’t popular is a self-defeating question, asked with mock bewilderment by critics who’ve already made up their minds about her. In her polished range of textures and expertly unfolding verses and choruses, Jepsen’s music bounces and catches the ear, but there’s a shyness to her songwriting and a tentative quality to her beats that signals a turn inward, which is her secret.

A gawky, earnest singer lost in the keyboard flourishes and drum jitters she hears in her own head, a romantic who dreams quietly, she uses blank formal exercise as a site for introspection. A youngish, indie-adjacent, largely gay fanbase might well value such a dynamic more than the charts and pop radio, which demand louder or at least flashier novelties.

So the attenuated sound of Dedicated suggests her recognition of her new audience, and the need to adjust her style accordingly. It’s softer, airier, more indebted to alternative R&B. The beats are lighter and more ornate, decorated with splashy keyboard filigrees and showers of glitter. There’s more sex on this album, or maybe more daydreaming about sex; her songwriting, which describes universal emotional states while avoiding concrete nouns, relishes ambiguity.

Opener “Julien” sets the tone: upbeat but slightly languid, coasting over crunchy, ethereal synthesizer chords whose dewy sparkle isn’t quite tangible. The song appears and floats away on the breeze, like a stray memory. “Everything He Needs” melds her voice into the beat’s breathy swish, a shifting, feathery amalgamation of electronic exhalations, as the high background keyboards create a sense of mounting excitement inside a cozy space.

The squeaky elastic bass and delicate percussive snaps on the ethereal “Too Much” are certainly not too much, which is the point: by singing, hesitantly, “When I party then I party too much/when I feel it then I feel it too much,” as if eyeing the music with caution, she depicts a crippling anxiety. “Is this too much?” she wonders, knowing the answer is yes — any feeling is too much feeling, any touch is too much touch.

Throughout Dedicated, songs that on paper would suggest intimacy, when performed so tentatively, so daintily, instead convey reticence. The album’s best songs convey a sense of opening up, of a quiet person awakening to the world’s possibilities and coming out of her shell. On “Now That I Found You”, her increasing glee is reflected through a garbled vocal loop that almost qualifies as an EDM-style drop and a keyboard whose plastic bounce sometimes plays at double-time, especially when it can align with her voice: “I think I’m cominalive!”

“Real Love,” the big climactic power ballad at the end, builds to a similarly gauzy pseudo-drop, a grand, deliberately silly synthesizer blast, punctuated by triumphant declarations (“Real, real, real love!”). “I don’t know a thing about it/all I want is real real love,” she exclaims in the crucial lyric; she’s fixed her sights on the external from a distant place. By contrast, when she attempts ordinary celebratory love songs, the tone collapses: “Want You In My Room,” a jaunty, glittering dance romp, fades out with yet another saxophone solo that panders to received ideas about ‘80s retro (the only ‘80s saxophone solo that manufactured such corny forced enthusiasm was Clarence Clemons’s on Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love”).

Although the album isn’t hookless or empty, shifting the bright, blank sound of her earlier music to a subtler pastel doesn’t make it weirder or more difficult either; if anything the softening suits her material. Speedy and cheerful, Emotion sketched the strange paradox of an introspective romp: whatever her feelings were, and there were many, she always projected delight in having them. By finding interiority within the external, she surprises.

Dedication furthers this project, but the forms have changed: breathy singing and dimly lit electronic atmosphere are ultimately more familiar devices for depicting interiority. R&B-tinged softcore is supposed to be introspective. Tension — the marvelous inversion of moods that animated her functionalism — is what she relinquishes in pursuit of exactitude.

Then again, an exquisite, cozy, erotic rendering of reticence is its own sort of inversion. Rather than a party album or even a romantic album, Dedicated is an album about aloneness, contemplation, self-scrutiny. Distance gives rise to emotion.

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