Lorde - Melodrama
Upon the release of industry skewering smash single “Royals”, Lorde launched past any and all barriers toward stardom, becoming an undeniable overnight success. At 16-years-old, she: went platinum in a week, began touring arenas across the globe, and held hands with David Bowie. All of which seemed to ride on the back of just three minutes and ten seconds of neatly crafted, though forward thinking pop mastery. For reference, that track has now racked up more than 400 million streams on Spotify alone – the lyrical sentiment of the single apparently didn’t last long. Following her debut album Pure Heroine and even after the release of Melodrama’s first teaser “Green Light” four years later, Lorde could have followed a predictable path in line with fellow pop icons. It seemed, at the time, the writing was on the wall. I personally found the whole prospect a bit disappointing.
For as long as I can remember my feelings toward the ultra-mainstream music industry were variations of the same, culminating in the feeling that the props of the pop sphere almost always smell more like money to me than artistic integrity, unless a Big Mac is the best cut of burger you can imagine. As much as we like to shoo the thought, our favorite summer jam is often the result of a heavily scrutinized, media-trained, focus-tested, bottom-line-serving system designed to be purchased en-masse. It’s a treatment to art that only an immensely wealthy industry can pull off. As an example from NPR’s Planet Money, Rihanna’s 2010 single “Man Down” required a $78,000 two-week long “writing camp” made up of dozens of renowned songwriters and producers from across the world and an additional million for radio play and marketing. This, of course, makes the barrier to entry almost impossible for independently minded musicians who have the advantage of a personalized sound, but nothing close to the financial backing to manipulate it to perfection, let alone market the thing. But if we’re buying what the industry is selling then who’s to stop the tide of synthetic, repetitive commercialism from crashing through our airwaves? So forgive me if I was skeptical Lorde wasn’t beyond occupying the space of yet another UMG-backed, perfectly sculpted figurine slotted into a bizarre, yet formulaic game of pop-variation musical chairs. And who’s still listening to “Man Down”?
Yet somehow, even while keeping one foot in this terrain, Lorde punctured my judgment with sophomore release Melodrama, an album wonderfully dismantling pop music from the inside with a craftiness that appears to be hers alone.
In a feature interview with The New York Times’ Jonah Weiner, Lorde discussed how the album is structured like the unfolding of a millennial night: typifying singlehood, partying, and zealotry – the build up, catharsis, comedown, and especially melancholy about it. This device, that it was an album laced with coherency and focus, was intended to be a selling point to Melodrama, but instead prompted the thought: isn’t this the sort of structure contained within almost every pop release? But Melodrama’s conceptual nature is perhaps more intentionally integrated than the exercise of arranging singles across a spectrum of banger-up-front and ballad-in-the-back. Across its concise duration of just 41 minutes, there are dance floors, messy balcony-top confessions, and of course twinges of regret puncturing through wild and lustful abandonment. Melodrama sets the stage with, fittingly, the most radio-friendly track of the bunch, “Green Light”. As we move forward, excitement for what lies ahead begins to shift into more painful emotions as clarity gives way to slippery judgment, occurring quick as the second track, “Sober”. Lorde never wanders from this narrative pastiche and we receive a narrow depiction of her because of it. That’s fine, this snapshot of 20-year-old life in a state of constant-disassembly allows her voice to slide and quake through earworm after earworm giving Melodrama the pace we need to never truly settle in. The fierce belly-fire Kate Bush vocal comparisons won’t stop either as we watch Lorde cyclically peel herself off the floor to collapse again minutes later.
Aiding this ricochet of emotions is production assistance by Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and fun., someone increasingly becoming a go-to partner in crime for big league pop artists ranging from Taylor Swift to Grimes. For Lorde and Antonoff, the recording process took 18 months, the writing process even longer. While Melodrama’s “narrative” tightly packs just an evening of punches, you can hear every moment’s delicate consideration: the soft spinning harmonies in the background of “The Louvre”, the squelching synths carrying “Hard Feelings / Loveless” into its latter half, the whole arrangement of “Green Light”, which apparently unearths a deeper layer with each listen.
The whole affair is intricate in its depiction of smashed emotions and rebounds. Lyrics frequently trace the scenery surrounding raw desire, “half of my wardrobe is on your bedroom floor”, “sometimes I wake up in a different bedroom”, “but my hips have missed your hips”. There’s also a spite underscoring a number of spots: “bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark”; the fury of “Loveless”. These ever-changing push-pull vacillations never quite reach complex emotional depths as much as blast cursory emotions like a drunken wreck, but isn’t that a bit what it’s like once the clock strikes 20? Melodrama holds a mirror to this space, mindset, and vulnerability in a way few recent pop albums have or possibly can because, and here’s the big kicker: it was almost entirely written and composed by Lorde. It sounds more authentic than your typical pop album because, relatively speaking, it is. For an album bearing this much mass appeal, it’s exciting to know that it required a singular vision to craft, not a fleet.
The album reminds me a great deal of Chance the Rapper or Grimes in their ability to maintain an outsider status while simultaneously conflating and benefiting from pop music’s tropes. With her witchy fashion sense, intentionally moth-like costumes during live television performances, and choice to tour with significantly lower profile acts like Majical Cloudz, Lorde seems to be making a point about who exactly is conducting her celebrity. But hey, this is still pop: As of now, Melodrama is topping the iTunes sale charts, opening track “Green Light” contains a booming chorus that flashes us back to “California Girls”, and Lorde is probably filling up an arena near you. The difference is that she’s there on her own terms.