2. The opening piano. The big piano ballad, as far as we knew, was not in Lorde's arsenal. The most dramatic, introspective lyrics on Pure Heroine were still mostly conveyed in lively mid-tempo, blanketed with synths that sighed and sparkled -- there was nothing that could possibly be interpreted as a torch song. But from the first measures of "Liability," with the song's grand, "Whiter Shade of Pale"-like melody being thudded out on the keys, it's clear that this is going to be a left turn for Lorde, and the turn only gets wider from there.
3. The lyrical fake-out. Halfway through the first verse, Lorde drops something of a bombshell of a lyric, lamenting, "So I guess I'll go home, into the arms of the girl that I love/ The only love I haven't screwed up/ She's so hard to please, but she's a forest fire." Is she discussing an affair with another woman? Role-playing from an ex's perspective? The answer comes by verse's end: "We slow dance in the living room, but all that a stranger would see/ Is one girl, swaying alone, stroking the cheek." In other words, it's her own arms she's going home to -- so don't get ahead of yourself -- but regardless of the resolution, she's got your attention at this point in the song, for sure.
4. The chorus. "They say, 'You're a little much for me / You're a liability.'" The piano goes soft for the song's refrain -- as if this is hard enough on her already -- and the singer just barely ekes out the impossibly cruel chorus, which she then doubles down on by internalizing and echoing back: "I understand -- I'm a liability / Get too wild, make you leave / I'm a little much for everyone." Like the about-face chorus to Adele's "Someone Like You," it feels more devastating for how it pulls back on the intensity, too bruised and weakened to show the strength of grand drama.
5. The singular first-person. Remember when everything with Lorde was "We"? "We'll never be royals," "We live in cities you'll never see on screen," "We're dancing in this world alone"? Pure Heroine was all about strength in numbers, but now it's just Ella, grown and on her own, with only piano and guitar for solidarity. "I am a toy that people enjoy, till all of the tricks don't work anymore/ And then they are bored of me." She's never gotten this personal before, and just hearing her tell her story so plain-faced, without a plural pronoun to hide behind, makes each line its own wrecking ball.
6. The production. Obviously, Lorde's never done a song this stripped-down before: Gone are the booming drums, crackling bass and waves of glistening synths that colored her early work. But the production is just as key to the success of "Liability" as it was to any of her previous singles -- it just stuns with rawness instead of sumptuousness, with every scrape of fingers against guitar strings, every plunk of ivory hitting wood and every hairline fracture in Lorde's voice vividly audible. And when the song does add layers, embellishing the second verse with what sounds like bells and a Mellotron, it's only to brilliantly strip them away at the song's dramatic climax -- "Every perfect summer's eating me alive/ Until you're gone!" -- at which point nearly everything is shed but the singer's tattered wail, echoing into nothingness.
7. The outro. "They're gonna watch me disappear into the sun." A closing note of inspired ambiguity, avoiding total despair -- hey, at least she's moving into the light -- but making it painfully clear Lorde's not coming back around anytime soon. Good thing we now know for a fact there's a new album coming in three months.