Lorde took the pop world by surprise this morning, dropping new track ‘Liability’ just a week after the release of ‘Green Light’, her first single in three years. The Spinoff Music verdicts are in.
When ‘Royals’ was taking New Zealand, and then the world, by storm, it quickly became annoying to hear people (mostly middle-aged bloggers tbh) opine, by rote, not about what was great about that song, and that EP, and then that album, but about all the things Lorde might become. Would she be a one hit wonder with a globe-dominating single that some day would inspire ‘remember this?’ as we danced at weddings, embarrassing our adult children? Would she be a bona fide pop star, producing hit albums every 18 months with incremental progression and chart longevity? Or would she combine her voice, her precociousness and her eccentricity into a long-lived career of artful experimentation and commercial inconsistency? Would she be Tiffany? Madonna? Or Kate Bush? (A false trichotomy?)
But while Pure Heroine refuted the first option, where Lorde would take her music and her career remained an open question that only intensified with each passing albumless year. How different would 20-year-old Lorde sound from 16-year-old Lorde? (That’s a fifth of a young life.) What kind of songs would she write without Joel Little? What is her life like now and what, if anything, would she tell us about it? While a career takes a long time to read, from the heartbreak dance-pop of ‘Green Light’ and the cathartic balladry of ‘Liability’ we start to get inklings of what’s ahead – an expanded sonic territory, an internalisation and contemporisation of classic songwriting technique, and an emotional and lyrical transparency that makes you feel like you’re riding shotgun on a life that is, on one level, so different to nearly every other living person’s, and on another is exactly the same. All of which is apparent in ‘Liability’, a classic piano ballad with hints of the rap-influenced phrasing she used to employ more readily, while working as a formal plinth for the clearer, deeper, warmer voice(s) heard on ‘Green Light’.
It’s a song about a young woman, who burns brighter, who lives louder, who’s “a little much” for the one she loves. It’s universal (about unrequited love) but also specific. Knowing Lorde has confirmed the autobiographical nature of the record, you can’t help but hear, in those lines, that the song is about someone who makes their living, in some sense, from their living, and so lives with different incentives and constraints than those around her; about someone who is famous and knows that fame can be both an attraction and a burden. It’s just as heartbreaking because you’ve been there, as it is heartbreaking because you haven’t.
To characterise the response to ‘Green Light’, it was Lorde as we’d never heard her before. Well, we’ve really never heard her like we do on ‘Liability’, her first piano ballad. At first that initial sequence of descending chords triggered memories in me of a time when every rock band would have “a piano one” on their album: even Jet had a “Beatles-esque” number, a comparison I make not as a reflection on Lorde but as evidence of how token and hokey ballads can get.
The attention to little details set ‘Liability’ apart – the syncopated, half-rapped verse; the momentary swelling when Lorde is detailing the dizzying highs. That’s been a feature of her songwriting since essentially the get-go; the new terrain for her this time is vulnerability. “The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy ’til all of the tricks don’t work anymore” – ‘Liability’ is about the being a “little much”, not knowing to dim your light or be left alone with it, the question grappled with by every Ask Polly column. If anyone still sought to dismiss Lorde as purely pop, this is the plain old-fashioned mastery of craft that might change their mind.
Well, I have to credit the press releases – this is Rihanna’s ‘Higher’ with all the blood sucked out of it by fun.’s Jack Antonoff. A torch song with Lorde sitting at the bottom of her vocal range is a bold choice for a second single, and I’m sure it’ll sound better at 3am than 8am.
‘Liability’ should come with a discretionary warning; may cause long-buried feels to manifest. I wish that when I was Lorde’s age I had the capacity to voice feelings of unrequited love, being gaslighted by an ex, isolation and a burden to your friends. Few would dream of exposing our vulnerability so publicly, but there is a generation of young women who rely on the courage of artists like Lorde to elucidate their shared experience. She has carried fragments of her former self and amalgamated new experiences to deliver a poignantly honest and complex ballad of raw, female emotion. Word to the wise, because of the natural mood progression through the piano used in both tracks, ‘Green Light’ should follow ‘Liability’.
So this morning I was on the train from Sylvia Park thinking about how, thematically and structurally, ‘Green Light’ is basically Lorde’s ‘Someone Like You’. Obviously it sounds nothing like Adele’s iconic sadbanger, but in my 8:15estimations that made total sense, because their respective wheelhouses are so obviously and cosmically distant that obviously Lorde’s never going to release a song that’d make the comparision fit on a pure aesthetic level. Then I came out of the Glen Innes → Orakei 4G deadzone to a Twitter feed slowly but consistently losing its shit about this. And then I listened to its unadorned, unembellished, unbelievably sad Didion-at-a-Steinway undulations four consecutive times in transit from Britomart to my anonymous 11th floor office in an anonymous inner city sub-skyscraper, and I realised that I was both wildly premature and hopelessly, desperately wrong.
All of which is a long-winded, frantic way to preface my official take on the song, which is as follows:
‘Liability’ gives us an insight into the new direction of Lorde’s music, far removed from the electropop of Pure Heroine. Where ‘Green Light’ was a bright shiny single, ‘Liability’ feels like a quiet album track. But that’s ok. It uses the classic chord progressions of Pachelbel’s Canon, as so many other pop songs have done before, giving it a familiar and solid structure for Lorde’s heartbreaking lyrics. OMG, the lyrics! Lorde’s tale of a woman whose rich, complex life makes her less appealling as a long-term girlfriend. It’s similar territory to that covered by Taylor Swift in ‘Blank Space’, but while Tay-Tay can shake it off, Lorde’s song is about the hurt that all the rejection based on “girl, u crazy” can cause. But it’s not always a sad piano song – a highlight is the Rihanna/Sia style that turns “everyone” into “Eh-eh-na-na-na-eh-everyone”. Lorde, please bless us with more new music.
A week ago Lorde was blowing up the internet with the full-on pop of ‘Green Light’ – something more danceable, catchy and beat-oriented than anything she’d done before. Breathless praise followed (with even alt-rock queens converting to super fans and getting in on the action) and conventional wisdom suggested it would be a decent wait until another single dropped, before album Melodrama arrived on June 16. But Lorde excels at delivering music in a way that maximises its impact in the digital age, and so arrives ‘Liability’, just as the dust begins to settle on the grand ‘Green Light’ unveiling.
‘Green Light’ was a left turn from the sound Pure Heroine, but ‘Liability’ is perhaps even more of a shock – a solo piano-accompanied ballad so direct, raw and crushing that it’s a little disorientating at first. Lorde has never been this direct; her clever lyrical turns were previously often cloaked in a sharp cynicism, a big part of her pull on early recordings. Here she acknowledges she’s a liability, too much hard work for anyone, and she totally gets it. On the surface the obvious modern pop comparison to this are Adele’s torch songs, but this is more a spiritual cousin to the messed up, self-loathing, “but I’m still walking away in some strange kind of cinematic triumph” of cult hero Harry Nilsson. In short – ‘Liability’ is great, and June 16 seems like a lifetime away.
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