Soften Up

“So, I’ve been tryin’ hard to open up,” sings Carly Rae Jepsen on “Surrender My Heart”, the opening track on her latest album The Loneliest Time. “When I lost someone, it hit me rough / I paid to toughen up in therapy / She said to me, ‘Soften Up’.” That’s the entire crux of this album right there. We were all forced into our own very dark, very lonely places during the pandemic, and we’re still adjusting to returning to actual living once again. Or that’s how I feel, anyway, which makes Carly’s new album so relatable. I found myself hardened after the ordeal, most particularly at my day job, and that’s not a good thing at all, because anyone who knows me will tell you I’m an extremely gentle guy. I’ve put up with so much abuse from the backwards rural crowd, dealt with so much pressure from greedy businesspeople that I feel broken. And Carly’s exactly right. Cynicism can do irreparable damage to a person.

So many people gushed over Fiona Apple’s last album, declaring it the ultimate covid lockdown record, but I think The Loneliest Time is better at capturing that solitary, pensive mood. With dance beats. Carly remains a master of the three-minute pop tune, and I can’t think of a contemporary singer who’s at skillful at vocal phrasing as Carly. With just the subtlest of adjustments she can go from ebullience to heartbreak. And the melancholy moments are wonderful on this record: “Far Away”, “Bends”, “Western Wind”, and the spectacular, ’70s west coast vibe of “Go Find Yourself or Whatever” are all riveting, and as someone who’s very impatient with pop ballads, that’s high praise.

But the big dance pop moments are what I live for when it comes to Carly, and while there’s not a dud on this album, two stand out. “Talking to Yourself” is a perfect reproduction of ’80s pop, and that little pause she dows between “your” and “self” in the chorus is the single best hook I’ve heard all year. By delaying that syllable by half a second she creates a sublime little explosion that commands your attention. It’s a masterful moment. Then there’s the title track, which closes the album. A duet with Rufus Wainwright, it’s a gorgeous slice of soft-focus disco, smooth and propulsive at the same time.

Trust Carly Rae Jepsen to create a melancholy album that still stays loyal to the dance pop sound that made her big to begin with. She’s always branching out, trying new things, and as eclectic as she gets – this is probably her most eclectic album to date – her charming presence keeps the entire thing cohesive. And by letting herself soften up a little, her vulnerability comes out, which makes her art all the more endearing. It’s a good lesson for the rest of us.