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Album Review: Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Dedicated’

Pop's unlikely cult hero continues to carve out her own lane.

Even in a pop landscape where half the new artists on the Hot 100 seem to have sprung from reality shows and viral videos, the ascendancy of Carly Rae Jepsen has been an unexpected ride. Going from a folky singer-songwriter hosting open-mic nights to a “Canadian Idol” runner-up and then a presumptive one-hit wonder thanks to 2012’s “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen has since transitioned into a sort of cult hero. Her core worshipers: a motley coalition of LGBTQ youth, music critics, and internet randos who write 100-page unified theories of her songs, and once launched an inexplicable online campaign to give Jepsen a sword.

It would be easy to wind up crushed under the weight of so much weirdly
performative affection, but for her fourth album, “Dedicated,” the follow-up to 2015’s synth-pop miracle “Emotion,” Jepsen has opted for the road less traveled. Rather than lean into her meme fame, or desperately chase the zeitgeist for another “Call Me Maybe,” she’s instead focused all her energy on simply being a really, really, really, really, really, really good adult pop star.

Keeping the essential 1980s hues of her earlier work while adding a small splash of classic ’70s disco, “Dedicated” mostly picks up where Jepsen left off four years earlier. Much of the genius of “Emotion” was initially credited to her eclectic choice of collaborators, which split the difference between multi-platinum heavy-hitters (Shellback, Stargate, Greg Kurstin) and hipper, more left-of-center experimentalists (Dev Hynes, Rostam Batmanglij). She opts for an entirely new supporting cast this time around — with Portugal. The Man producer John Hill the most consistent presence — and the fact that her new material sounds largely of a piece with her old testifies to how much more credit Jepsen probably should have been given.

As a vocalist, she is strong but rarely showy, and she has a knack for taking the most obvious primary color of a given song and applying a slightly skewed shading. Ask her for blue, and she’ll come back with aquamarine, or periwinkle, or topaz. Not only does this keep things musically exciting, but the marginal disconnect between the substance of her lyrics and the tenor of her delivery lends her otherwise straightforward rhymes an unexpected depth. She can take a lyric like “God, you make me so tired” and sound paradoxically energized, or tackle a chorus consisting of “On the bed, on the floor … I wanna do bad things to you” and phrase it in such a way that you’re not entirely sure she’s singing about sex.

Nowhere is this quality better displayed than on album opener “Julien,” a near-classic of dance-floor melancholy where the moody lyrics and transportive disco pulses find a perfect adhesive in Jepsen’s coolly noncommittal vocals. The singer once cited Donna Summer as a key influence on this album, but it’s hard not to hear more generous doses of Paula Abdul, Kylie Minogue, Giorgio Moroder’s “E=MC2” and even a faint, PG-rated echo of Janet Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope.” To wit: the former two are touchstones for the wickedly catchy “Happy Not Knowing,” while stabs of Moroder-esque vocoder scattered throughout the record add a cheeky edge to Jepsen’s heart-on-a-sleeve sincerity.

“Dedicated” was purportedly assembled from some 200 provisional songs that the singer had archived (a potential title track was one of the casualties), and once in a while traces of studio cabin fever show. “Everything He Needs” might have spent a little too long marinating on the mixing board, its gentle swing cluttered by too many bells, whistles and pitch-shifted Shelley Duvall samples. “I’ll Be Your Girl” is more fundamentally mishandled, as a lovely melody is crammed into an off-kilter rhythm that doesn’t seem like it would ever be able to accommodate it.

Even with the occasional missteps, it’s remarkable how rarely one senses any sort of strain to push songs into radio-baiting templates. Songwriting-producing trio Captain Cuts — who worked with Jepsen on 2018’s “She Bop” update “Party for One,” included here as a bonus track — definitely try the hardest, and their contribution, “Now That I Found You,” could have benefited from a less forceful touch. Much more successful is “Want You in My Room,” an impossibly peppy collaboration with Jack Antonoff, which loads so many heavy-handed hooks onto its two-and-a-half-minute frame that it risks collapse — but by the time it reprises the gloriously cheesy ’80s sax from “Run Away With Me,” all resistance becomes futile.

Elsewhere, however, Jepsen nails these tracks with such ease that it seems bizarre she isn’t a bigger star. On album standout “Too Much,” her woundedly beautiful ruminations on the excesses of love flutter atop an instrumental that sounds like a reggaeton beat took half an Ambien and sprawled out on the couch scrolling through photos of exes. “The Sound” makes clever use of empty space, leaving short spikes of silence where one is conditioned to expect the crunch of guitars. And “Feels Right” finally gives Jepsen an appropriate male duet partner, juxtaposing the smooth multi-tracked vocals of Electric Guest’s Asa Taccone with Jepsen’s elastic snap.

By the time the album wraps with “Real Love” — an electro-anthem big-hearted enough to soundtrack several years’ worth of Netflix teen romances — it’s hard not to lament the gulf between Jepsen’s talent and her place on the charts. She is 33 years old, fundamentally empathetic and relatively retiring on social media, and her style of stardom feels increasingly incompatible with the Ariana Grandes and Billie Eilishes of the world. But if “Dedicated” is any indication, the lane she’s carved out for herself has plenty of perks of its own. Ariana may command arenas, but it’s tough to imagine anyone giving her a sword.

Album Review: Carly Rae Jepsen's 'Dedicated'

Production: Label: Interscope/604/Schoolboy. Producers: John Hill, Jordan Palmer, Kyle Shearer, Captain Cuts, Jack Antonoff, CJ Baran, Ben Romans, Patrick Berger, English Breakfast, Roget Chahayed, Asa Taccone, Alex Hope, James Flannigan. Featured artist: Electric Guest

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