Elle Hunt reviews Lorde’s new album, Melodrama.
Every sophomore album of a breakout young star is hotly anticipated as a test of their artistry and staying power, and Lorde did precisely nothing to ease the pressure on herself. Melodrama comes very nearly four full years after her debut album, Pure Heroine, and, in that time, we heard less music from her than we did promises of greatness to come. In the absence of any new releases, expectation was buffeted by administrative updates, such as when, two years ago, Lorde broke ranks with her manager. A journalist wondered aloud if she’d “live to regret it, as so many before her have”, apparently prompting her to tweet: “don’t underestimate my skill”.
She was defiant last August too, telling an aggrieved fan, in an Instagram comment she later deleted, to “give up on me if you want to”: “I’m an artist … I’ve worked like a dog for a year making this thing great for you guys”.
And now it’s ours, the album formerly known as L2, to put on repeat and rule on how we like. The anticipation for Melodrama is that it would be studied for clues as to Lorde’s influences, her potential, her future direction – not to mention her state of mind. She has previously declined to specify the circumstances of the end of her long-term relationship in 2015, her “first major heartbreak” as she told Beats 1; Melodrama, about coming to terms with being alone after a breakup, will be read as her statement.
Really, though, it’s a story. Anyone who has ever been hit hard by the end of a relationship will know those feelings can’t truthfully be articulated neatly – many you can’t even reconcile yourself. You can recognise that it needed to end, even instigate it yourself, and still those waves come after midnight. You can want to jump into something new, someone new, while knowing you’ll sink.
This tone of mercurial ambivalence was set by ‘Green Light’, the first single of Melodrama and the album’s opener. In it, Lorde is impatient to come out from the shadow of this relationship, and for the “brand new sounds” she hears to be fully realised, while recognising that moving on from heartbreak is a process that can’t be hurried.
But it can be manipulated. “I think I’m partying so much because I’m just dreading sitting at home by myself hearing my thoughts hit the walls,” wrote Lorde on Rap Genius of her “big realisation” of the last year.
For much of the first half of Melodrama, she is queen of the weekend, fizzing with an almost manic energy as she tries to grasp the potential of the night ahead and her new life alone, pushing to the back of her mind that small voice that asks in the midst of the midnight revelry: “But what will we do when we’re sober?”
In ‘Homemade Dynamite’ – one of the few potential singles on the album, with a funky groove and breathy refrain reminiscent of Nelly Furtado’s singles-laden album Loose – she’s “blowing shit up” with a promising new acquaintance, showing off her best side, leaning on her best lines, stepping outside herself to flatter him, perhaps not quite convincingly: “You know I think you’re awesome, right?”
Later she pictures the night ending in a drink driving accident, “painted on the road, red and chrome, all the broken glass sparkling”. That imagery is pulled straight from the Pure Heroine playbook of finding poignancy in the pedestrian – but the dry punchline that follows (“I guess we’re partying”) isn’t.
The conceit of one night at a house party, as Lorde explained the album to the New York Times, isn’t made explicit – Melodrama is just as thematically consistent an exploration of moving on from love as Pure Heroine was a record of “teenage glory”. It is more mature, more challenging, more intricate, but that was surely inevitable: Lorde was 16 when she released her debut album, enshrining her teenage experience concurrent to living it with self-awareness, sure, but even more self-consciousness. Pure Heroine is an excellent album, but its depiction of youthful boredom in suburbia seems stage-managed.
Kierkegaard said it is impossible for a teenage girl to give a good performance as Juliet, even though Shakespeare specifies that she is 13, because “in order to represent Juliet an actress must essentially have a distance in age”, bringing to her performance the maturity, experience and perspective that comes with time. Youth is seen more clearly at a remove – Pure Heroine was lived and recorded almost simultaneously.
The self-knowledge that comes with getting older, getting better, seems to have let Lorde relax into her artistry. There’s a wry humour and playfulness to the first half of Melodrama that we know to be authentic from interviews and tweets, that hasn’t figured significantly in her music before. Her idiosyncratic dance moves, her lyrical grandeur, her dramatic dress, the highbrow references she wears matter-of-factly on her sleeve – there has always been an intensity to Lorde that some find off-putting. (“You’re a little much for me,” she sings at herself on ‘Liability’.)
On Melodrama it’s buffed up and made to sparkle with little moments of levity, like the stuttered ticking time-bomb of a chorus on ‘Homemade Dynamite’, and whispered “pow” after “Now you know it’s really gonna blow”. There’s a sense that Lorde felt free on this album to play, to riff, to gently rib metaphors and imagery she might once have put forward straight-faced. Even the title is knowing.
She declares to her lover that their portrait will be hung in the Louvre, then admits “down the back, but who cares – still the Louvre”. That “glossy idiot god”, as she lovingly called her Pure Heroine-era self in November, might have found a spot for it next to the Mona Lisa.
Most markedly, though, Melodrama represents a levelling up of ambition, musically and conceptually. “From the moment I start something, I can see the finished song, even if it’s far-off and foggy,” she told the New York Times of her process. “It’s about getting the actual thing to sound like what I’ve been seeing.” These days, her vision seems to be reaching further, taking in more, and more precisely.
Melodrama is the kind of cohesive whole we rarely hear (or expect) of albums today, with a driving narrative from which it’s hard to single out likely hits. Songs change shape purposefully, and in surprising ways. ‘The Louvre’ opens with a muted guitar strum that, along with the conversational tone in which Lorde owns up to over-analysing punctuation in a text, sets the stage for an Exponents-style rock singalong, abruptly thrown out of joint by a heavily amplified snare drum. The space swells: we’re no longer in the boy’s bedroom strewn with her clothes but in a stadium, on a highway, the horizon – then just as we’re acclimatising, it contracts again like a heart: “Broadcast the boom, boom, boom, boom, and make ’em all dance to it.”
Once Lorde’s strategy was to let ’em talk. The youthful defiance of Pure Heroine (“it drives you crazy, getting old”) asserts itself now as self-assurance. ‘The Louvre’ would seem confused and meandering in comparison to the four-minute vehicles for a catchy chorus, designed to deliver maximum memorableness for minimum investment, that it would be bookended by on the radio. But on Melodrama, it is a winding road that sets the scene for a sweeping, heady vision that, when it comes apart, does so small and sadly on ‘Liability’.
“He don’t wanna know me / Says he made the big mistake of dancing in my storm / Says it was poison.” The song was inspired by a moment Lorde remembers “vividly”. She had been listening to ‘Higher’ by Rihanna in a cab, crying, convinced her celebrity would sabotage her future relationships. “I was just like, ‘it’s always going to be this way, at some point with everyone it’s going to be this way’,” she said on Beats 1. “But the song kind of ended up turning into a bit of a protective talisman for me.”
Midway through Melodrama, Lorde slows down and sobers up, turning inwards to find “what they call hard feelings of love”. ‘Hard Feelings’ is a tender, introspective vow to move on from love without losing the memory of it, beginning with a wistful look back (“go back and tell it”). Many of Lorde’s centrepieces are quiet moments in cars; in this one, even though “our love is a ghost”, she’s reluctant to leave because she won’t ever return.
The turning point, when it comes, is not heavily signposted. She lights candles, surrounds herself with flowers, and otherwise commits to reconfiguring a shape for herself outside of her relationship, to “fake it every single day ’til I don’t need fantasy”. “I’ll start letting go of little things until I’m so far away from you,” sings Lorde sadly. The synth is held quietly, like a breath. Then it stops.
Except it doesn’t. ‘Hard Feelings’ is the first four minutes of ‘Hard Feelings/Loveless’, with the slash articulated by a sample break of a male voice speaking of his “favourite tape”. ‘Loveless’ itself is a fleeting ditty, a chant about Lorde’s “L-O-V-E-L-E-S-S generation” offset with a sing-song taunt: “Bet you wanna rip my heart out … I’m gonna mess your life up.”
Its contrast with the heartfelt, wistful ‘Hard Feelings’ is obviously intentional, but it makes an ambiguous artistic statement, the first one on the album that she doesn’t pull off – partly because it seems so at odds with the singular story it’s concerned itself with so far. If Melodrama is Lorde’s 1989, ‘Loveless’ is her ‘Bad Blood’: a song that seems laughably crude on first listen in comparison to the considered craft either side of it. (Of course, Taylor Swift’s not fazed; it’s been phenomenally successful.)
Even if the song is intended to mock tired generalisations of millennials “fucking with our lovers’ heads”, as suggested by Lorde’s tone, she is nevertheless repeating them, and uncharacteristically. Her lyrics lean on wordplay, sideways metaphors, and telling details: she doesn’t so much as drink as wrap her lips on glass, clinking teeth on ice, tasting liquor. It is hard to imagine her coming up with a refrain that could pass for trite.
The same can’t necessarily be said of Jack Antonoff, the songwriting-production wunderkind behind hits for Swift and Sara Bareilles as well as his own bands fun. and Bleachers. He worked with Lorde closely on Melodrama over an 18-month period, and is its sole other listed executive producer. You can hear his influence in the held piano chords and jerking rhythm of ‘Green Light’ and ‘Supercut’, in shuddering snares and synths at a distant hum – listen to ‘Hard Feelings’ or ‘Liability (Reprise)’ back-to-back with Swift’s ‘You Are In Love’, and you’ll have an approximation of the Antonoff sound.
Above all, he tends towards an anthemic chorus, a call to arms like that of fun.’s thundering 2012 hit ‘We Are Young’. Partly because of his success with 1989, songs that Antonoff has either written or inspired flood the radio, risking over-saturation. With its circling rally cry of “What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”, the closing track of Melodrama resembles Snakehips’ ‘All My Friends’ in detail, and songs by unmemorable singers such as Dua Lipa and Halsey in general.
Antonoff’s rose-tinted tendencies made him an obvious choice of collaborator for Lorde, and the ambition realised with Melodrama is testament to the success of their partnership. But his current success is a double-edged sword: for as long as he is the music man of the moment, he is a magnetic pole for the mainstream, and risks smoothing the edges off Lorde’s singular talent even as he tries to foster it.
It seems fair to say that to put out a boring or generic album would be to go against Lorde’s own preternatural instincts, which tend towards the unusual. “I have a strong awareness of the rules,” she said of the observed formula for writing a hit. “Sixty percent of the time I follow; forty percent, I don’t.”
According to the New York Times, Max Martin, the pop music powerhouse, heard ‘Green Light’ shortly before its release in March and called it “incorrect songwriting”, eschewing its full potential because of one part running too long – not an insult, Lorde said, “just a statement of fact”: “It’s a strange piece of music.” [Editors note: On the Spinoff’s forthcoming Lorde: Behind the Melodrama podcast, Lorde says the story is actually about ‘Royals’ not ‘Green Light’.]
On the New York Times‘ Popcast, ‘Green Light’s middling chart performance was held up as evidence that Martin had been right. If the goal was a chart smash, yes. But that’s not the only metric that matters, and we don’t know how much it matters to Lorde.
Max Martin has penned the most number-one hits of any producer bar George Martin because he works to a precise formula, where emotional depth, even simply meaning matters less than his “melodic math” of that adds up to a chart-topper. The fact that she ignored his advice indicates commercial success is less important to her than art – in which case, the imperative in the longer term will be finding collaborators who can help push her to the outer limits of her craft and to lean into her weirdest impulses.
But really, she doesn’t need much help.
The era-defining potential is evident in one of Melodrama‘s final moments, Lorde accompanied on sparse piano and strings. The electronic processing of her voice for much of the album becomes apparent in its absence on ‘Writer in the Dark’, a Bowie-esque ballad she carries from a whisper to a howl: “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark… in our darkest hours, I stumbled on a secret power / I’ll find a way to be without you babe.”
A mathematically melodic pop song invokes the kind of Pavlovian response that makes us want to listen to it again and again; it does not have to be shaped from life to do so. But hits come at the expense of craft, gaming syllables to sounds for maximum impact on an audience that is only ever paying partial attention. ‘Writer in the Dark’ proves the power of artists to create a whole from contradictory emotions, drawing a line through simmering resentment, enduring love, and new independence to arrive at one conclusion: a commitment to making it all add up to something.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.