Carly Rae Jepsen Pierces the Fantasy

“I thrive on a little chaos,” the queen of bubblegum pop said, describing her new album’s grit and glitter.

Carly Rae Jepsen against a pastel forest background
Meredith Jenks

In Carly Rae Jepsen’s rich trove of gemlike pop songs, one 2019 track, “Julien,” gleams with special purity. Over a cool disco beat, Jepsen makes a promise: “To the last breath that I breathe / I’ll be whispering, ‘Julien.’” On her recent concert tour, on stages decorated with puffy clouds and silver stars, Jepsen has updated her take on Julien, a real man she once dated. He is, she has shouted at a few shows, “a dick!”

This bit, Jepsen told me recently, is less about attacking her ex than attacking her listener’s expectations. “Oh, Julien, poor guy,” Jepsen, 36, said. “He’s not, like, a terrible guy. He’s just not the guy who ended up being for me, so it feels hilarious that I keep singing about him as ‘the last breath that I breathe.’” These days, she wants “to let the audience know to not believe too much in the fairy tale of Julien.”

Puncturing fantasies might seem contrary to Jepsen’s whole joyful-escapism shtick. But there’s a reason the fans at her sold-out shows have a tradition of presenting her with toy swords, as if she’s their warrior queen. Jepsen’s continually delightful career embodies the truth about great bubblegum music: Its squishy sweetness contains hard, unkillable realism. The video for “Call Me Maybe,” the surprise hit that brought her global fame in 2012, shows her dreaming about—but not getting—the hunk in her front yard. A decade later, on her introspective and varied fifth album, The Loneliest Time, the grit underlying her music’s glitter is more perceptible than ever.

When I spoke with her on Zoom, Jepsen’s platinum-blond hair and intense stare gave her the slight air of a Targaryen, though a charmingly expressive one. She whirled through exaggerated mannerisms and spoke fast, in a tea-kettle rasp of a voice. Just before our call, she’d been working on a logistical problem involving the lighting rig around the large talking moon that is the centerpiece of her present tour. After she helped her team solve the issue, she said, her security guard paid her a compliment: “Like, ‘I just love how tough of a boss lady you are!’”

The Loneliest Time arose from Jepsen having her fortitude tested over the past few years. When the COVID-19 pandemic slowed her world down, she had to face the sacrifices she’d made—broken relationships, missed milestones—to the hustle of show business. Family tragedies, including the death of her grandmother, drove home that she didn’t know “how to handle life shit, like when stuff gets hard,” she said. On the album’s opener, “Surrender My Heart,” she recounts what happened when she sought counsel: “I paid to toughen up in therapy / She said to me, ‘Soften up.’”

Describing that therapy session to me, Jepsen imitated the mind-blown emoji to demonstrate how the “soften up” advice hit her. Over the years, she said, she had baked herself into a “tough little cookie” who appeared “happy all the time”: “Not just for my career, but also for my family, I very much felt that pressure to be like ‘Everything’s good; I’ve got it.’ “Surrender My Heart” signals a shift, calling for vulnerability not from a lover, as her music typically does, but from herself. The synth-pop arrangement is unsurprisingly anthemic—but Jepsen sings with a trembling tenderness that feels new. “It was almost a prayer,” she said of the track. “I want to be open.”

Part of what she’s opening up about is quite dark. Sometime in the past few years, another family member of hers died suddenly. For privacy reasons, she’s not discussing the details, but the new song “Bends” does sketch out the aftermath. A dial-tone-like beat from the experimental pop producer Bullion conjures numbed shock; warm, wafting choruses evoke what she called the “sad, communal feeling” she shared with family members. At a playback session during which she revealed new material to her team, she hesitated about debuting such a personal track. “At the very end of the meeting, when people are grabbing donuts and [leaving],” she recalled, “I was like, ‘Ahhhh, I also did this song.’”

The album’s fun moments have an uneasy tinge too. On the irrepressible “Beach House,” a cast of male vocalists play shady suitors, including one dude who’s “probably going to harvest your organs.” The song is inspired by Jepsen’s own short period on dating apps: “One of the real fears is you go on a real date and you fear for your life,” she explained. Counterbalancing that cynicism is “So Nice,” a laid-back ode to a lover who is really polite. When her managers suggested that the song was too sweet, she went and added an even sweeter bridge. The extremity is the point. “There’s a creepy element to it, where everyone’s like ‘What’s the catch?’” she said. “Dot dot dot ... nothing.”

A similar idea underlies many of the album’s songs about returning to an old flame—a story line that is “songwriter’s gold” not because it’s romantic, but because “it’s dangerous,” she explained: “You can kind of be addicted to the bad kind of love.” The string-laden ecstasy of the album’s title track—“Is this nirvana?” Jepsen and guest vocalist Rufus Wainwright sing—is, for example, a parody of a happily-ever-after. “I don’t think that’s how running back to your exes in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain, really works out,” Jepsen said. On the standout “Bad Thing Twice,” a Fleetwood Mac–ian bass line pulses restlessly as she sings about astrology and ill-advised attachment. “I’m embracing the qualities of Scorpio, which aren’t always wonderful ones,” she said. “I thrive on a little chaos.”

The album’s biggest curveball, “Go Find Yourself or Whatever,” certainly shows off her sting. The casually funny title—like “Call Me Maybe” so long ago—demonstrates Jepsen’s knack for capturing how people really talk, and a friend-slash-ex of hers inspired the withering lyrics: “You feel safe in sorrow / You feel safe on an open road.” (Only later did she realize that she might also be describing herself.) A wistful folk ballad complete with a banjo breakdown, the track hardly delivers the pep her listeners crave. Yet when she played it at her New York City show a few weeks ago, her rowdy audience grew hushed, before erupting in a wave of cheers.

At another point in the show, Jepsen threw her blazer on the ground and acted mad about the fact that The Loneliest Time would come out on the same day as Taylor Swift’s new album. Fans cackled at the subtext. Jepsen, firmly a cult figure these days, has never reached the level of enduring fame that Swift enjoys. But Jepsen was only pretending to be resentful. “She’s a lovely artist; it’s not like throwing any shade,” she told me of Swift. She added that after “Call Me Maybe,” she felt pressure to compete with other singers, as if they were rivals for a throne. But “it’s not that way,” she said. Pop, she has learned, is “like love. It’s limitless.”