It’s inconceivable to imagine a charting, young 2010s pop act that doesn’t command a cult of personality, so let’s just be grateful that Lorde’s persona is one of the best. Her anti-teen pop, teen pop auteurism was apparent from the first line of 2013’s out-of-nowhere smash, Pure Heroine: “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?” Then there was the megahit: “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh.” Ella Yelich-O’Connor, like most 16-year-olds, wanted to be defined by what she’s not. Not rich, not boring, not one of them. Forget being royals; she’s content to be the girl who’s got Broken Social Scene’s “Lover’s Spit” on repeat and a drink spilled all over her. And she had a sound to match, all negative-space beats and floating, layered Yelich-O’Connors throwing possible yearbook quotes at the wall. Except now she’s rich.
On Melodrama, the frighteningly titled follow-up that gestated in the doubly worrisome hands of Bleachers majordomo Jack Antonoff for four years, Lorde turns that eye-rolling sophomore wallflower into something more grandiose, like a dryly funny sitcom narrator or the musical equivalent of the record-scratch/freeze-frame “Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got into this situation” meme. The 11-song album is more “drama” in the screenplay sense than anything else, probably because as Frank Ocean is for R&B, Lorde aspires to be pop’s poet laureate more than anything else. Closing her teeth around a liquor-wet lime on “Sober” or overthinking a paramour’s punctuation use on “The Louvre” (as in “They’ll hang us in the…”), she reaches out to the dour-pop audience with images and details they can actually recognize. After all, who hasn’t second-guessed a dreaded period in a one-word text they received?
On album opener and first single “Green Light”, she turns standard Taylor Swift he-said/she-said breakup fare into 12-dimensional chess: “She thinks you love the beach/ You’re such a damn liar” or “Those rumors, they have big teeth.” Musically, it’s a misshapen cheerleader chant, its irresistible rush either despite or because of that oddish key change before the four-on-the-floor chorus. Obviously, Max Martin telling her it’s composed “wrong” gave her a boner. Someone should tell her “We order different drinks at the same bar” isn’t that big a deal, though.
For its first four tracks, Melodrama achieves this balancing act as spryly as any stretch of Pure Heroine. The sparse array of bending and clicking textures in “Sober” are punctuated on “my hips miss your hips” before a, well, royal fanfare, and the music drops out entirely for a very Prince-like uttering: “Jack and Jill get fucked up and possessive when it get dark.” And on the excellent “Homemade Dynamite”, she raps like a caffeinated Lana Del Rey toward a stuttering hook over a funky-woozy Jai Paul-style beat and ad-libs an adorable mouth-explosion noise before the final chorus.
After “Liability”, nuggets of concrete living continue to surface, if less consistently: the snapshot of buying groceries on “Hard Feelings/Loveless”, not to mention the same song’s mic-drop “I care for myself the way that I used to care about you.” Probably the album’s best production, it begins with a lone crackle-snap beneath its accompanying tune and gives way to a squeaky-bedframe synth and a breakdown of chalkboard-screech noises that earn that “Loveless” subtitle more than the chant of “L-O-V-E-L-E-S-S generation” at the end.
And as with “Green Light”, the auteur uses the directorial term “supercut” to make sense of all these relationship reels on an up-and-up track of the same name, the most no-nonsense floor-ready track here. Her self-positioning in the pop world continues to be an arresting angle for the lyrical second-guessing. Lorde plays the observer more than the outsider here; Lana Del Rey lives to be onscreen while Lorde just wants to be the cinematographer. If only her interest in taking us there extended beyond each setup’s cleverness. You don’t leave Melodrama with much of an impression of who Lorde or the breaker of her heart is, just a feeling in the back of your mind that Diablo Cody could adapt these misfits’ story for some-size screen or another.
From a less metaphorical perspective, Lorde’s overreaches and missteps are just as charming as the incisive parts, so she must be an icon. The board-manning Jack Antonoff’s over-reliance on synths and clicks limits what she can do with this new maximalism, and her insistence on, well, melodrama will occasionally mar her best writing, which remains in the shadows. She’s not a liability. But she can be a forest fire.
Essential Tracks: “Green Light”, “Homemade Dynamite”, and “Sober”