Four years between albums, and Lorde makes it sound as if all she did was party. Not that she was having much fun.
On Melodrama, her second album, Lorde’s nights out are a swirl of drunken flirtations and reckless hookups, where she tries to forget herself but ends up more lonely and self-conscious than ever. Momentary pleasures lead to lasting regrets; trivial interactions can seem cataclysmic. It’s an exceedingly narrow slice of life, but Lorde inhabits it with feverish intensity.
The album’s opener and lead single, Green Light, leaps right into all her conflicting impulses: She’s furious at an ex but still struggling to let go, though, she also notes, “sometimes I wake up in a different bedroom.” Quick, bouncy piano chords, a foot-stomping beat and eager backup singers can only emphasise that she’s “waiting for that green light” of real independence — not that she’s found it yet. But the song’s joyous major chords already sound as if she’s busted loose.
In extensive social-media posts and interviews, Lorde — born Ella Yelich-O’Connor — has presented Melodrama as autobiographical, summing up the time since her debut album, Pure Heroine, particularly “the last 2 wild, fluorescent years of my life,” she wrote on Twitter.
It’s a deeply selective account. Between albums (and between parties), Lorde was also the hardworking musician she portrayed herself as in Still Sane on Pure Heroine. She toured the world, supervised the soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (with a song of her own) and worked steadily on the songs that would follow her world-conquering debut. Amid the party reminiscences on Melodrama, she also sings about a breakup that she insists was partly triggered by her growing fame: He “hated hearing my name on the lips of a crowd,” she sings in Writer in the Dark.
Lorde was all of 16, and clearly wise beyond her years, when Pure Heroine was released. In most of the songs on that album, Lorde presented herself as a voice of ordinary teenagers, particularly the middle-class teens in her hometown in New Zealand. She often sang about them as a shared “we,” and while they knew they were a world away from glamour or renown, on their own terms they were heroes and gladiators; Lorde’s music, overdubbing her own voice, cast them as ghostly chorales and majestic choirs. Royals, her career-making international hit, was a yearning repudiation of what pop and hip-hop songs were flaunting for teenagers like her: “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece,” shaping fantasies until “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.”
With that song, and the rest of Pure Heroine, Lorde became a pop star herself. It would make anyone’s head spin and give anyone second thoughts; no wonder Lorde, now 20, took so long to make a second album. She had an infinitude of choices; she had worldwide recognition and new friends like her fellow teen conquistadora, Taylor Swift.
It’s a very different, more rarefied, more isolated peer group. Lorde is not remotely ordinary any more, and she’s no longer a teenager (though she’s not that far away; Perfect Places, another song about trying and failing to party her woes away, proclaims, “I’m 19 and I’m on fire.”)
While recording Melodrama, Lorde distinctly lowered her public profile; she rode subways and ate in New York City diners, she has told interviewers. But she is well aware that she’s privileged. The luxuries she name-checked from a sceptical distance in Royals are easily available to her now. “Oh how fast the evening passes/Cleaning up the Champagne glasses,” she sings in Sober II (Melodrama). Even more tellingly, the group “we” has given way to an “I,” a passionately imperfect character who’s impulsive, sensual, easily hurt but also proud and a little cerebral: “I overthink your punctuation use,” she admits in The Louvre, a song about the rush of infatuation and obsession for a guy she already knows is “not my type.”
Musically, Lorde has spawned emulators: moody, alienated, minor-key-loving outsiders and misfits like Halsey (who had the No 1 album last week), Alessia Cara, even some guises of Selena Gomez. They have their own variants on Lorde’s glum anthems and sullen pride, and Lorde’s technique of nervously accelerating a verse or pre-chorus with a faster flow of words is no longer hers alone.
For her second album, she changed collaborators. After working with New Zealand musician and producer Joel Little on Pure Heroine, she wrote and recorded nearly all of Melodrama with Jack Antonoff of Fun. and Bleachers, an expert at building a booming pop superstructure around sentiments of ambivalence and self-doubt. Together, they shifted the rhythmic trappings of Lorde’s songs: less spattering trap percussion, more classic-rock solidity; though keyboards fill the album, a Springsteen-tinged guitar arrives in The Louvre. Their productions also infuse some mixes with noise; burbles and blotches of synthesiser distortion erupt on the edges of Hard Feelings, like the psychic storm behind the song’s attempts at a merciful breakup.
Basic piano chords underline Lorde’s sincerity in Liability, which hints at David Bowie ballads like Life on Mars? as she explains how her romances end with her partners deciding, “You’re a little much for me.” Another piano ballad, Writer in the Dark, gives a Taylor Swift stratagem — pop song as post-breakup revenge — some Lana Del Rey languor, and it’s sometimes sparse and transparent enough to accompany Lorde’s voice with just a piano note or two.
Writing about parties and untrue love, Lorde risks joining the pop pack instead of upending it the way she did with Pure Heroine. But she still has the immediacy of her voice, with its smokiness, melancholy and barely suppressed rage, and she refuses to let her lyrics resolve into standard pop postures; she understands temptation, complicity and self-sabotage as well as self-righteousness. And she has already posed herself a question she can answer on her next album, after a few more years of growing up. In Sober, singing about yet another fling entered with misgivings, she asks, “What will we do when we’re sober?”