When Lorde released her first musical adventure in 2013, the taut indie-pop electronica of The Love Club EP, she was an unknown quantity. An artist free of expectations and baggage. Then with the breakthrough of “Royals” (spanning the EP and her fully-fledged debut album Pure Heroine), her songs of observation and isolation written in the sleepy suburbs of New Zealand were suddenly thrust upon the world stage. And before she knew it, her tiny corner of the world got a whole lot bigger. With it, expectations for what her next chapter would be grew.
In a pop landscape where artists seem to churn out releases as often as they change outfits, Lorde spent 4 years creating and crafting Melodrama, reflecting a period of growth from 16-year-old ingénue to a worldlier 20-year-old woman. A woman who had achieved the elusive fame she once viewed from a distance. A woman crushed and bruised by a failed relationship. A woman, perhaps more comfortable as an outsider looking in, who was now inside the fishbowl of fame looking out.
Written following the breakup with her long-term boyfriend, Lorde threw herself into her music as a coping mechanism as well as a cathartic outlet. And what began with personal musings on heartache soon transformed into a quasi-concept album of the highs and lows of relationships set against the backdrop of a singular night in a house party, transporting the listener through different feelings of the night with different rooms and moods to explore. And explore she does.
Kicking off with “Green Light,” Lorde embraces her first night out following the dissolution of romance and the emotional baggage that goes with it. As the lead single and album opener, “Green Light” is a decided push into pure pop more akin to the kind that Taylor Swift co-opted with producer Jack Antonoff (who takes on co-producer duties here as well). A symbol of emotionally waiting to move on from a failed relationship, “Green Light” is a jubilant opener if not a little too calculated. And as pop fare goes, there are stronger tracks awaiting that feel that are truer to the artist Lorde is at her core.
Take “Supercut” or “Homemade Dynamite.” Both tracks offer a more convincing take on mainstream pop whilst still holding on to Lorde’s very essence as a singer-songwriter with cryptic, alluring rhymes and twisted lyrical observations backed with strong brain-drilling hooks.
Lorde’s expansive musical vocabulary not only as a creator, but also as an obsessive sponge, comes through as you explore the halls of Melodrama. Wandering from room to room you hear tinges of her influences bleeding through. In one beat you might hear a Tori Amos-like ascending vocal, the next a paranoid expression a la Fiona Apple, and then a pure pop lift from the likes of Swift and Perry. But with each she holds onto her own sense of delivery and identity.
Songs like “Sober” are more in her own alt-pop wheelhouse. The jarring rhythms and rhyme schemes give the song a sense of urgency, whilst the sparse arrangement gives the vocals a chance to breathe, even when they are delivered like an emotional machine gun of desire and regret.
“Hard Feelings/Loveless” finds Lorde observing the end of the relationship and the emotional fallout that continues to impact her, perfectly encapsulated by the lines “When you’ve outgrown a lover / The whole world knows but you / It’s time to let go of this endless summer afternoon.“ Brilliant production grounds the song in a deep dark well of melancholy and despair, accentuated by a little bit of revenge in the making. Seguing from “Hard Feelings” into “Loveless” encapsulates the desire to avenge your broken heart set against a hard, itching beat and features perhaps the longest fade out in pop history.
For all the strengths of Lorde doing Lorde like the deliriously lovely “The Louvre” and sublime “Sober II (Melodrama),” it’s when she pushes into unfamiliar territory that both album and artist ascend to another level.
With a stripped-back arrangement of just vocal and piano, “Liability” is a standout amongst standouts. With space for vulnerability, the evocative confessional confronts the allure and casualty of fame and global recognition. How being a pop darling everyone wants a piece of comes at a price not only for the object of desire, but also those closest to her and those that desire her. There’s an aching rawness in her voice as she sings, “They say, ‘You’re a little much for me, you’re a liability’… So they pull back, make other plans / I understand, I’m a liability.” A truly honest representation of fame from the inside without an overpowering sense of “feel sorry for me and all I have.” This is just acceptance. The track is bookended five tracks later with a reprise that allows Lorde to free herself of the shackles of blame for both the failures in her relationships and for being, quite simply, who she is.
Likewise on “Writer In The Dark,” Lorde allows her heartache and unrestrained emotion to shine through. It captivates and draws you in, tugging at you without relying too heavily on the typical tropes of strings and power ballad drums. Reflecting back on the way the relationship was doomed to fail and how the passing of time was just a measure of toxicity, Lorde delivers the album’s best line as she notes with a hint of malice, “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark.” This observation is at the core of her being, as part and parcel of the relationship with an artist is how she will use the good and bad as inspiration. And in expressing her thoughts and experiences she is, in fact, memorializing the relationship forever. Much one would imagine to the chagrin of her ex.
In an album of emotional highs and lows, of hopes and blows, Lorde brings them all to the fore with the album closer, “Perfect Places.” Over a driving beat, Lorde creates a pristine summation of teen party culture, in seeking an escape from life in the perfect place of a crowd of drunken friends and loud party music. By her own admission, she retreated into the party scene following the breakup in hopes of finding an escape and avoiding the loneliness and isolation that was the alternative. As she surmises, “When we’re dancing I’m alright.” But just as the party and escapism can’t last, eventually you have to go home. And soon the promise of finding those perfect places is twisted to be more a futile attempt at numbing pain and you have to embrace that fear of being alone. Thankfully though, sometimes you have a great soundtrack to keep you company amidst the despair and isolation.
At its broken heart, Melodrama is what a breakup sounds like. With all the heartache, laments, moments of melancholy and hopes of moving on intact. Growing pains and strains. Life, love and stains. At once a partner to—and antidote for—loneliness, it is a strong outing for an artist still embracing her creative journey.
Notable Tracks: “Liability” | “Sober” | “Sober II (Melodrama)” | “Writer In the Dark”