Words About Music
Ella Yelich-O’Connor, the biggest thing to come out of New Zealand since Bret and Jemaine, made her first big impression on humankind in 2013, when she was just 16 years old. I would imagine that being a teenager and being a famous popstar must be incredibly difficult, but she handled that fame well, and put out a surprisingly decent debut album that autumn with “Pure Heroine,” an album I enjoyed quite a bit when it came out. Now, the artist known as Lorde has taken her sweet time (almost four years) to drop a follow-up project, “Melodrama,” a mature, dark record that shows how far she’s come in the past several years as a vocalist, lyricist, and musician.
“Melodrama” kicks off with the album’s initial single, “Green Light,” which has grown on me significantly since I first heard it. I love the somber, bitter way the song opens up, and I also love the uplifting, heavy chorus. It’s a song that highlights feelings of heartbreak, with slight synths, churning pianos, and a bouncy drum machine beat that picks up as Lorde reaches the “I’m waiting for it! That green light! I want it!” part of the song. Like many of the songs on this record, it was co-produced by Bleachers frontman (and Fun guitarist) Jack Antonoff, a venerable pop songwriting superstar in his own right. And he does some great things with this song. “Green Light” is a fantastic pop track, a great opener to the album, and one of the best pop songs of the year, by far.
The weird electronic bits carry forth with the song “Sober,” which I don’t like quite as much as I like “Green Light.” I think that, lyrically, it carries some of that “WE CAN DO ANYTHING” naïveté that bogged down “Pure Heroine.” The production on this track is fantastic, though, and I think Lorde’s moody vocal performance fits the song’s sound very well. I especially enjoy the brass embellishments in the track, I just wish the lyrics showed a bit more progression from 2013-era Lorde, despite the fact that everything else about the track is pretty fucking fantastic, especially the extremely catchy bridge.
The brilliance continues on “Homemade Dynamite,” one of the album’s best songs. Lyrically, musically, and melodically, this song is tops. I like the way it ties self-destructive, even suicidal imagery to lyrics about having mindless fun. Every time I forget how much I love this song, I listen to it again, and I love it even more. Lorde sounds confident, wise, and just totally cool atop the minimalist beat. In certain ways, it also reminds me of “Pure Heroine,” but if this song were on that record, it would far-and-away be the greatest song on that record. It’s a natural progression for Lorde; one I welcome with the openest of arms.
“The Louvre” is another fantastic track that scratches a certain synthpop itch for me, with its lightly picked guitars and booming drum machines. I didn’t even realize that Flume co-produced this track until I was reading the album credits. But Lorde is clearly the star here, with her humorous, sarcastic wit biting through the overtly romantic lyrics. This track is an amazing throwback to the ’80s with some decidedly current production and writing.
Things get extremely sad and personal on the next track, the piano ballad that is “Liability.” I get legitimate goosebumps when this song comes on, and its confessional beauty speaks for itself. It simultaneously reminds me of Rihanna’s “ANTI” and Frank Ocean’s “Blonde,” but it stands on its own as one of the greatest songs Lorde has written. So far, with this album, I have very few complaints, and this track only cements for me the immense talent Lorde is working with here, both as a creative lyricist and as a pop vocalist.
The album’s emotional centerpiece is the 6-minute “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” which features more of Lorde’s pained singing about a hard breakup. I love the ambient synths which make up the song’s background, as well as the lyrics which recount the good times she had with this relationship. Additionally, there are more excellent electronic bits in this track, including some truly noisy (noise-inspired?) sounds as “Hard Feelings” transitions into “Loveless,” which kicks off with a sample of Paul Simon from a documentary about his mid-80s album, “Graceland.” This part of the song is angrier than the previous part of the song, with a cutesy pop hook which reminds me of some of Lorde’s similarly talented contemporaries, like Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen. I do wish there was a bit more to this part of the song instead of it being a glorified outro, but I still enjoy the musical ideas and melodies at play here more than I’ve ever really enjoyed Lorde’s ideas and melodies.
As the album plows through its second half, we reach “Sober II (Melodrama),” indicating that Lorde is thinking about the flow of the album and connections between songs. I like that it appears that a lot of thought was put into this record, and I even enjoy this song more than I enjoy its similarly titled predecessor earlier in the record. This track, with its almost hip-hop-inspired production, definitely captures the song’s parenthetical title (and album’s title) very well, with Lorde delivering a dramatic few verses about some of the album’s familiar topics, namely the aftermath of the party, whether the party is a literal party or a years-long relationship.
Lorde gets meta on the track “Writer in the Dark,” which tackles the difficulty of being in a relationship with a famous singer/songwriter. It’s an interesting subject, especially the way Lorde writes about it, with lyrics about regretting entering a relationship whose job is literally to write personal music about her life, good and bad. It has me thinking that it must be very difficult for Lorde’s ex-boyfriend, whose every indiscretion is now more-or-less public record with the release of this project. Like “Liability,” it’s a stripped-back piano ballad, but with more sarcasm and bitterness behind it amid the self-loathing. “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark,” sings Lorde, referring to herself as the titular writer in the dark. Throw in some gorgeous strings at the end and we’ve got yet another excellent song in what is, so far, a veritable ocean of excellent songwriting and production.
A driving synth and a soft piano kicks off “Supercut,” which displays the dangers of romanticization and idealization. While I’m not as into these lyrics as I’ve been into previous lyrics, I think the production and hooks more than make up for those pitfalls, which continues to be a recurring theme on “Melodrama.” This album is immaculately produced. Lorde has finally settled into a groove, finally found a sound. She’s fully carved out her own lane that I’m not sure any other artist could replicate. “In my head, I do everything right,” she sings, exemplifying how a change in perspective totally alters how we look back on past experiences, specifically romantic ones. The subjective “I” is never wrong and never makes any mistakes in the moment, but hindsight is always 20/20.
“Liability (Reprise)” is exactly what you’d expect it to be, a 2-minute rehashing of an earlier moment in the album, except with some different lyrics, different chords, and vocal modulation. I like the way that it is transitioned from the previous track, making it feel like it deserves its spot in the tracklisting here. It may not be the album’s most essential song, and it certainly doesn’t work as a song on its own, but I think it continually shows how Lorde was able to make this album a complete experience. In this writer’s opinion, “Melodrama” surpasses the sum of its parts because of decisions like these.
The album ends on a fairly high note, with “Perfect Places.” Admittedly, I’m not in love with the lyrics on this song either in the same way I wasn’t in love with the lyrics on “Sober.” Amid an uplifting melody that is filled to the brim with sound, Lorde sings about partying behaviors, questioning the “perfect places” we are taken to by mind-altering substances. Sonically, it’s a fitting end to the album, even if I’m not quite as in love with this track as I am with some its deep cuts. Comparatively speaking, I suppose I can say that the ending is sort of weak considering how much I enjoy the lyricism and songwriting on a vast majority of the project, but I can’t help but praise the overall artistic consistency on “Melodrama,” and I can see this being a great ending to the album even if it ends with what are probably the two least essential songs.
For the most part, though, this album kind of blew my fucking mind apart. It is packed with fantastic hooks, for one. It is also impeccably produced, casting a wide net with minimal pianos, whirring synthesizers, pleasant drum machines, and subtle guitars. The lyrics are mostly excellent and creative, and Lorde’s unique voice and personality come through with full confidence and clarity. If it takes more than 3 years for Ella to bless us with another progressive pop masterpiece, I am more than happy to indulge that wait, because “Melodrama” is a damn-near perfect record for me. I think some songs could’ve used some work, but as is, this will undoubtedly end up as one of my favorite albums of the year.
SCORE — 8.75 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Green Light, Homemade Dynamite, The Louvre, Liability, Hard Feelings/Loveless, Sober II (Melodrama), Writer in the Dark, Supercut