The first time I heard Lorde (outside of “Royals” on the radio in passing) was on a bus headed toward Austin City Limits in October 2013. I had downloaded her 2013 debut album Pure Heroine and was ready to rip into it for a review for my college newspaper. But one minute into opener “Tennis Court” I was completely blown away. The lyrics and production were equally sublime. The songs were catchy but catered to no pop music standards. Pure Heroine did something few albums ever can; introduce a new artist with huge crossover hit potential who can also reshape the entire pop landscape. Suddenly, dark, spacey minimalism was very in. She wasn’t the first to hone this sound – see xx from 2009 or The Weeknd’s 2011 trilogy– but she successfully paired it with accessibility and personality without compromising any artistry. In the four years since its release, Pure Heroine has only gotten better with age, and the fallout of its wake can still be seen on the charts.
Four years is a long time to spend on the followup to a massive commercial and critical debut, but Lorde isn’t a traditional pop artist, and she was right to think long and hard about what statement she wanted to make on her next LP. Songs about the trivialities of being bored and sixteen probably won’t play well over two albums, but the classic “Im famous now and I’m still jaded” sophomore trope is played-out and lacks the idiosyncratic detail Lorde puts into her lyrical work. Instead, for Melodrama, she chose similar themes to Pure Heroine, aged a few years, with renewed emphasis on contemporary party culture underscored by the paradox of the album’s titular expression.
Production- and writing-wise, Lorde turned most prominently to Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and Fun (who a few weeks ago released by far the worst album I listened to all year). His penchant for “bombastic”, “feel-good” choruses burrows its way into opener “Green Light”, the most obvious play for dance-floor ready radio pop (where it seems to have been quite successful) and probably the record’s second weakest track. Lorde still bites with a practiced cattiness, but the chorused vocals shooting for empowerment lack personality. The production takes a turn for the better on the second-sequenced “Sober”, which returns to Pure Heroine’s spacious, bass- and reverb- heavy arrangements and antichorus structure (punctuated by sharp horns), and while the sentiment (the emptiness of partying) is classic Lorde, I find the refrain (“But what will we do when we’re sober?”) awkwardly straightforward. “Homemade Dynamite” is the best of the dancey, “I don’t know how I feel about the banality of millennial club culture” three-song opening, letting a boom-clap beat and understated synths do the heavy lifting under Lorde’s practically whispered too school for cool delivery (“I guess we’re partying”, “Know I think you’re awesome, right?”). Thus Melodrama‘s opening movement is effective at setting themes and a mood, but its “bangers” hardly bang and it doesn’t follow through lyrically.
“The Louvre” is another semi-successful attempt to make a minimalist anthem, and does feature a couple of nice lyrical turns (“They’ll hang us in the Louvre / down the back but who cares still the Louvre”) which see Lorde turn her attention to love interests, where she has a knack for striking a nerve. But the refrain of “Broadcast the boom boom boom and make ’em all dance to it” feels like further rehashing of all the record is saying up to this point. The album’s best song and centerpiece, “Liability”, succeeds by pulling away from all the tricks, featuring only Lorde’s capable voice, a piano, a couple organs and an excellent melody. The image of Lorde returning home alone find comfort in herself (“So I guess I’ll go home into the arms of the girl that I love” / “All that a stranger would see is one girl, swaying alone”) is visceral and haunting, the emotion in the song’s lyrics and delivery feeling more real than anything that preceded it.
But the record loses me again on “Hard Feelings / Loveless” – I don’t care if its sarcastic, I just can’t get behind a refrain of “This is what they call hard-feel-ings”. The production features some of the record’s best turns, again relying on anti choruses and huge harmony sections but bringing in bizarre and unexpected synth noises that give the some an anxious edge. But Lorde is effectively a singer-songwriter, and so her lyrics and in particular her refrains are of capital importance. Couplets like “Cause I remember the rush when forever was us / Before all the winds of regret and mistrust” are more than capable, but I struggle to find any more specific interpretation of her plethora relationship woes when they’re all built on the backs of similar poetic couplets evoking only a general wistful nostalgia.
The album’s back half has some of the record’s strongest moments – “Sober II / Melodrama” more successfully conveys the bitterness Lorde was shooting for on “Sober” (“All the glamour and the trauma and the fucking melodrama / All the girl fights and lime lights and the holy sick divine nights”) and “Supercut” makes a strong case for the record’s second best track, capturing a mood with detailed lyricism (“In your car the radio up / We keep trying to talk about us”) an excellent metaphor (“It’s just a super cut of us”) and a truly anthemic bridge into coda. The song is successful where earlier spots on the record fail because it feels personal; this is one specific relationship, and not a blanket statement about a culture Lorde has surprisingly predictable ideas toward. And “Liability (Reprise)” pivots successfully to Bon Iver style autotune, rehashing similar sentiments to “Liability” but with renewed cynicism. And “Writer in the Dark”, despite being somewhat of a zero lyrically, is the only place where Lorde really lets an unexpected hysterical wild side let loose vocally.
But after a strong back half, the record chooses to close with its worst track, “Perfect Places”, which feels exactly like the record’s opening third, full of “big, theatrical” Antonoff choruses crowded by too many harmonies voicing the dopey “Trying to find the perfect places!” kids bop refrain, without any trace of the emotion and personality Lorde has displayed she’s capable of owning. It’s a huge disappointment but also not atypical of a record as inconsistent as Melodrama.
Overall, I think this album has some excellent lyrical and production moments, but its play for a more generic dance pop sound does not go over well, I really don’t care for Antonoff as a co-writer on a lot of these tracks, and the lyrical themes frequently overlap and fail to stand out on their own. There are plenty of catchy moments, playful moments and uniquely Lorde moments (I think like three or four songs feature full instrument cut outs so she can saying something clever and sarcastic), but the record utterly fails to capture a specific time and place without any more than an expected amount of nuance. A lot of people already love this record, probably because they can really relate to that “God fucking damnit partying is so vacuous!” sentiment that shows up on pretty much every chorus here. And after all, the album is called Melodrama, so cheers to cohesiveness (I also love the cover art). But seeing how Lorde’s bassy minimalism has since been co-opted, I think that, aside from a few standout tracks, Lorde’s appealing personality and unique vocal stylings are the only things that save this record from being another generic pop album.
Score: 8 / 13