In 2013, teenager Kiwi songstress Lorde seized the attention of the music world with her sparse beats and sharp lyrics, becoming the youngest singer in a quarter of a century to record a number one hit, nabbing two Grammys, and selling over three million copies of her debut album Pure Heroine. Lorde pillaged the facades of pop culture and founded an alternative empire on eye-rolling cynicism and sudden moments of vulnerability.
In the first lines of her debut album, Lorde coerces the listener: “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk? / Making smart with their words again. Well, I’m bored.” Later, in the chorus of her landmark single “Royals,” Lorde croons, “And we’ll never be Royals. / It don’t run in our blood. / That kinda lux just ain’t for us. / We crave a different kind of buzz.” The whole album is delivered from the security of anonymity, a wallflower teen slinging stones at media giants.
However, Lorde must now deal with the irony that she has become pop royalty, making smart with her words on talk shows, able to indulge in any lux she pleases. This sobering realization seems to just be dawning on Lorde in the most vulnerable and haunting song off of Pure Heroine, “Still Sane.” In it, the sixteen-year-old anticipates the unknown life she’s stumbled into, pondering aloud, “I still like hotels, but I think that’ll change. / Still like hotels and my newfound fame. / Promise I can stay good,” before threatening, “I’m little, but I’m coming for the crown. / I’m little, but I’m coming for ya.”
It’s with this looming declaration that Lorde retreated into her recording studio, producing only one single over the next four years, risking obscurity for glory. One can hardly blame her for taking her time; in the creation of her sophomore album, Lorde faced a monumental task: demonstrate growth and maturity without abandoning the sound that won her pop royalty, craft a marketable pop album without relinquishing her unique voice, work with the industry’s most prolific producers without forgetting that her fame was founded upon undercutting them. And she needed to do it all without the refuge of anonymity she previously enjoyed. Lorde made a name for herself taking down pop culture, but what would she do now that the world knew her name? Now that she was pop culture?
Lorde answered all of these questions last week when she released her second studio album, Melodrama. This album confirms that Lorde has spent the last four years carefully, creating an album that is both art and pop, that is both a departure from and continuation of her first album, and that is wholly hers. Melodrama, despite its opulent production and star-studded credits, subtly continues Lorde’s campaign to subvert pop music, refusing to stoop to easy hooks, forcing patience by withholding fist-pumping beats, and commanding the attention of the listener with both striking lyrics and intricate soundscapes. Even if Melodrama occasionally strays from being the pop album listeners want, it commits to being the one they deserve.
The album immediately announces it intentions with its lead single “Green Light,” an intense, rollicking scorcher of a past lover. The song declares that Lorde has shed her teenage innocence with lines like “we order different drinks at the same bars” and “sometimes I wake up in a different bedroom” while also introducing a new sound thick with pulsing drums and painted with heavy piano keystrokes but never losing Lorde’s wry, crackling voice.
The next few numbers reinforce this new attitude and sound with “Sober” serving as its epitome and perhaps the strongest song off of the album. The song begins with fragile chirps of “Night, midnight, lose my mind” before introducing a driving beat and bawdy bursts of brass. In the song, Lorde crafts a teenage anthem out of a generic partyscape, musing, “We’re King and Queen of the Weekend / Ain’t a pill that could touch our rush” and finally declaring “We pretend that we just don’t care / But we care.” Lorde herself describes the song as “leaning & drawling, juvenile & triumphant.” Here again, Lorde proves that she is, at heart, a poet, distilling the entire scene into the pungent image of “this liquor-wet lime.” And all the while, a voice in the background begs, “But what will we do when we’re sober?”
This is the central question of Melodrama: what happens when the party ends? For Lorde, life has become a giant party populated by fans and producers and people to impress, and her album vacillates between visceral experiences and crippled retreats from the social scene, from relationships, from expectations. This mingled presence and absence is echoed back in the viscous, navy strains of “Sober II (Melodrama),” which repeats, “Oh how fast the evening passes cleaning up the champagne glasses.” However, the post-party devastation is never more painful than in “Liability” in which Lorde croons, “The truth is / I am a toy that people enjoy / ‘til all of the tricks don’t work anymore / and then they are bored of me,” with only a piano for company.
If there is one criticism of Lorde’s album, it’s that it wallows too long in this melancholy with “Liability,” “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” “Sober II (Melodrama),” and “Writer in the Dark” accumulating to over fifteen minutes of downtempo heartache. However, it would be unfair to call any of these songs boring because each offers a twist of phrase or unexpected chord progression just as the listener’s attention threatens to stray. Melodrama is an album that rewards the patient listener but does not try her patience, and that may be its most impressive accomplishment.
In an era when Lorde’s closest contemporaries are Ariana Grande, whose last album was a neat sequence of easily accessible, pre-packaged radio bops, and Miley Cyrus, whose last album was a sprawling twenty-three-track mess that betrayed listeners for self-indulgence, Melodrama feels like a masterpiece. For centuries artists have wrestled with the whether art’s allegiance should be to the artist or the audience, and Lorde has succeeded in crafting and album that comes alongside both. Melodrama is an intimate, honest portrait of Lorde’s life that never turns its back to the listener. It is an album that invites us into a true, mutual relationship with its author and subject. A relationship that, like all good relationships, requires trust, patience, and time.
Lorde has created an album that already has us wondering where she will be in four more years, but she’s left us a gift that will keep us good company until then.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.