Album of the Week: Lorde's Boundless 'Melodrama'
When's the last time you listened to Pure Heroine? It's easy to single out "Royals," "Team" and "Tennis Court" as playlist fodder, but nearly four years since its release, Lorde's debut album is worth poring over, listening to straight through and appreciating the sequencing. The details in Joel Little's production linger, as do the melodies on songs like "Buzzcut Season" and "400 Lux." Yet Pure Heroine's replay value is in Lorde's brilliant rendering of the teenage outsider experience - rolling your eyes at the in crowd and manufactured enthusiasm, sure, but also fumbling through your first experiences with love, sex and loneliness.
The Ella Yelich-O'Connor who made Pure Heroine at the same age that most of us are trying to master basic geometry is not absent on Melodrama, her sophomore album out on Friday (June 16), but she has evolved. The 16-year-old who marveled at seeing "the veins of my city, like they do in space" is now a pop star that has traveled the world; the shy kid who was "dancing in a world alone" with a crush has now encountered hangovers and heartbreak. The key to Melodrama is that it could not have been released a year after Pure Heroine made Lorde a household name. The New Zealand native needed time to gather experiences and a sense of perspective on a crucial developmental stage in a person's life.
This is often a difficult period of growth for an artist to squeeze into a handful of four-minute pop songs, but Pure Heroine proved that Lorde possesses a natural ease as a songwriter; she presents her most vulnerable moments with a disarming confidence. As dazzling lead single "Green Light" hinted, Melodrama is full of flickering memories of love gone astray, small movements that become major gestures, feverish highs in crowded places and regrets that stick in the back of throats. Songs like "Hard Feelings/Loveless" and "Supercut" document the spectrum of emotions one feels at the most heightened moments of an imperfect teenaged relationship -- so often in a car at nighttime, when the rest of the world is locked outside. "Sober" and "Sober II (Melodrama)" are a wild night and the morning after, with Lorde asking on the latter, "Lights are on and they've gone home, but who am I?"
Like any sensible 20-year-old, Lorde explores a variety of new ideas here, as Melodrama pairs the chattering beats and deep bass of her past work with piano, springier synths and rich backing vocals. Credit goes to Jack Antonoff, the Bleachers leader and studio whiz, for expanding Lorde's sonic palette without obscuring her voice or taking the focus away from her words. A lot of pop artists could have taken on a party-as-church song like album closer "Perfect Places," for instance, but Lorde imbues it with a sense of wry humor that would be difficult to duplicate. As the lyrical ideas of Pure Heroine multiply here, so do the sounds, and Antonoff is a nimble enough of a collaborator to make his presence felt without ever commanding the spotlight.
Lorde's biggest hit, still, is her debut single "Royals"; it might always be. But Melodrama proves that her 2013 breakout was not a lightning-in-a-bottle moment, but rather the start of a career full of surprises and payoffs. With her sophomore album, Lorde grows up and gets even stronger, her skills sharpened and her stance steady. Although it might take another four years, it's already exciting to think about where she'll head next.