It’s been a rough summer. Every day the TV brings bad news, be it about health, the environment, or politics. The weather at my place has been crappy: rain, brisk winds, and barely any sun. Hell, my cat bit my face today and usually he’s the most chill creature I know.
It’s a summer perfect for Lorde.
When we last heard her, Lorde was covering Bowie and making his song “Life on Mars” sound like something she wrote herself, a performance where she changed the song’s key and broke into tears; prior to that, she made “Yellow Flicker Beat” drip with menace, the layered backing vocals and tinkling drum machine making it sound like something she found on an old 78 before kicking into the chorus.
But all in all, it’s been a long time since she delivered anything more than just a song, a brief snippet of her maturing as a performer and songwriter. What was going on in her life? She’d already taken a teenage experience – young love and teenage jealousy covered in a mask of irony and posturing – on her debut record Pure Heroine.
That was about four years ago. In the time since, she’d exploded into a bona fide celebrity, palling around with people like Taylor Swift and Kanye West, and getting her photos into the glossy tabloids.
All the while, Lorde was growing up, living the years where everyone makes their mistakes in the glare of the spotlight.
“Well those rumours, they have big teeth,” she sings on “Green Light,” Melodrama’s lead single, and it’s hard not to believe her. She continues: “I wish I could get my things and just let go.”
“Green Light” is a loud, bombastic single. There’s a pop hook the size of a monster truck in the chorus’ piano riff and its mix of her rapid-fire singing and slower, drawn out chorus is a compelling mix. It’s a fantastic track and it’s both a perfect lead-in and the most misleading track here. Because Melodrama is not a loud, bombastic pop record. If Emotion is the party, Melodrama is what happens as everyone stumbles out into the night under the influence.
The change happens right after as “Sober” opens: there’s a looped vocal sample which suggests someone’s been listening to Laurie Anderson and horns on the chorus. But Lorde’s there, singing about losing her mind, asking what’ll happen when she sobers up. It builds up, her words growing unsettling, and she asks you to go astray with her; from there, the party goes off into some weird places: the clipped, distorted music of “Homemade Dynamite,” and her asking “can you hear the violence” on “The Louve.”
On her debut, Lorde’s music was all about potential: the idealized romance of “Royals” or the ironic posturing of “Tennis Court.”
Here, she’s reflecting back on damaged relationships and broken nights. It sounds like a small thing, maybe, but her songwriting has taken a leap; then again, she worked Jack Antonoff on this record and everybody but me seems to think highly of his old band.
Melodrama’s second half shows her taking more risks and pulling them off. The slow, piano-led “Writer in the Dark” has her singing at the top of her register; the sparse music suggests early Tori Amos, as does her over-the-top lyrics: “I’ll love you till the cops on me,” she moans as the strings swell and the song comes to a climax.
Likewise, “Supercut” creates it’s own metaphor – a supercut of a relationship in her head – as she walks the listener through the stages of a relationship ending, right down to the self-pity and broken communication. And on the closing song, she sings “I hate the headlines and the weather… but when we’re dancing, it’s alright.”
But there’s no happy ending to “Perfect Places,” just a string of one-night stands and mistakes made. “Every night I live and die,” Lorde sings, “It’s just another graceless night.” And her closing words: “what the fuck are perfect places, anyway?”
As a whole, Melodrama delivers in a way that builds off her debut and shows her coming into her own.
Lorde’s music immediate in a way which feels personal, but just about anybody can relate to. There are pop hooks, but largely the album doesn’t want you to get up and dance. If anything, it’s already been there and now sitting half-sober and about to make some questionable choices, but fully aware it’s okay to make mistakes.
Still, there’s more to it than that. It shows Lorde’s been learning from her peers and isn’t shy on using their tricks. She’s taken aspects of Swifts songwriting – the glossy mag confessional style – but twisted them to reflect back the night, not to name names. She’s learned from Kanye’s records: when it comes to beats, sometimes less is more, and you don’t always need a huge hook to draw a listener in. In so many words: it’s a mature sounding album about being immature. I’m already curious where she goes from here.