The 20-year-old pop star Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, better known by her stage name Lorde, released her sophomore album “Melodrama'”in mid-June, four years after her debut “Pure Heroine.” Critics and fans alike have had high expectations of the singer since 2013, and after the announcement of “Melodrama” in March, months of buzz and anticipation have only served to raise the stakes. The record voices a confident response to those high expectations—it acts as an articulate statement of purpose and passion from a maturing young vocalist.
The single and opener from the album, “Green Light,” was released to coincide with the album announcement on March 2nd—alongside an accompanying video—and it certainly makes sense as an introduction to Melodrama’s sound and direction. It begins with a single vocal track confidently sung over a dramatic three-chord piano progression, as if our protagonist has come to front and center stage to speak to us in a spotlight soliloquy. The pre-chorus adds more layers of Lorde vocal tracks, singing a funky, Michael-Jackson-esque melody while arpeggiated synths build underneath. This leads into a straightforward House chorus—with the appropriate shuffling piano riff and 4/4 dance beat. A single string synth signals the coming climax, and the track reaches its peak with a properly massive pop pinnacle. Synthetic handclaps accentuate the now-walking beat over propulsive bass. A bending solo guitar enters after the last chorus and tears the track down bit by bit. Lyrically, the song moves from themes of heartbreak and loneliness into a brilliant resilience—it seems to capture the exact moment of harnessing one’s hardships for the sake of songwriting. It starts in a devastated, lonely place, but finds hope somewhere along the way, and finishes in a fiery flash of triumph. All these components together make for an excellent pop song.
Other standout tracks take different approaches—oftentimes borrowing elements from other contemporary (and sometimes not-so-contemporary) pop musicians. For instance, “The Lourve”’s industrial two-step beat and progression into a massive chorus don’t stray far from the formulas of Imagine Dragons or Awolnation. Her conversational singing style sounds more like a Katy Perry song—but Lorde’s character and tone evinces more sincerity than Perry’s hyperbolic Californian archetypes. Lorde oo’s and ahh’s function most like the chorus to Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” and the outro’s guitar could’ve come straight out of a song by The Cure. Picking and choosing elements from other music to use for one’s own purposes has always been a central theme in pop composition, and Lorde and her producers have done this well throughout the album.
Some songs are even more far-reaching, like the second part of “Hard Feelings / Loveless” which satirizes millennial hookup culture with the same bubblegum electronica sound of Charlie XCX. “Sober II” opens the second side with cinematic strings but eventually adds a Trap-py faux-808 percussion part. “Liability (Reprise)” uses an “O Superman”approach to vocoder harmonies.
At the same time, in spite of its diverse pop syntheses and quality songwriting, Melodrama suffers from being rather monotonous. It has two basic moods: vengeful, angry, sometimes uplifting party tracks and sober, angsty, sad ballads. Some songs move from one to the other—“Green Light” masterfully does both well in discrete sections—but generally Melodrama sticks to innocuous mid-tempo chord progressions no matter their content. Her lyrics typically work if one is willing to admit a certain pop-py playfulness and innocence—but tracks like “Homemade Dynamite” get into serious doggerel territory, especially considering its cheesy explosion-snare sound (Dynamite?!? Get it?!?). Many of my friends have called Melodrama evidence of Lorde having matured, but with this I have to disagree. The album is about melodramatic behavior—the silly importance we give to high school crushes and college flings. The album’s title seems to communicate a certain self-awareness—but awareness of its content does not absolve Lorde from exploiting the same tired Byronic themes you might find on a ‘00’s emo record.
Rather I think Melodrama signals Lorde’s maturation into a seat at the pop-music table. Here she’s demonstrated she can write a solid 40 minutes of dancing and crying, and though maybe she’s no Adele, it’s entertaining enough to make critics take her seriously. She will never again be “that Kiwi singer who wrote Royals.” She’s not a one-hit-wonder. She’s here to stay.