In the early rounds of the press cycle surrounding Lorde’s new album, pop’s alternative heroine offered up an interesting tidbit about “Green Light”, her lead single: super-producer Max Martin called the song “a case of ‘incorrect songwriting.’” In terms of the Martin-approved formula for pop-craft, he was right. “Green Light,” which opens Melodrama, throbs its way to an eerie, hypnotic drone that plays out the final minute of the song. In ignoring Martin’s critique, Lorde let her artistic prerogative override conventional wisdom. But in telling us about the moment, was she perhaps explaining “Green Light’s” underperformance, which only peaked at 19 on the Billboard Hot 100?
If she was, she didn’t have to. Melodrama is a triumph, the new leading contender for pop album of the year.
Expanding beyond the cool minimalism and adolescent anxieties of Pure Heroine, these 11 songs explore the painful processes of becoming an adult, falling in and out of love, and reformulating your place in the world. The production, usually by Jack Antonoff and always by Lorde herself, is lush and diverse, living at home in that soft-goth surrealism that complements Lorde’s lower vocal register so nicely.
Lorde’s greatest gift has always been her natural ability to communicate authenticity. When she sang about getting on a plane for the first time on Pure Heroine, you believed her. When she sang about the unbridgeable gap between normal people and the rich and the famous on “Royals,” enough people identified to carry her to the top of the charts and a Grammy. But how can Lorde do that now, when she has undeniably become a Royal? She recalibrates with a turn toward the personal and an embrace of the broader musical palette available to her. Most importantly, though, she commits to an artistic vision that is consistently eccentric (definitely incorrect by the Martin metric) and all the more perfect for it.
Lyrically, Lorde conveys a charismatic vulnerability throughout Melodrama. In “The Louvre”, a song about recklessly falling for someone, if only for a night, she sings, “We’re still the greatest, they’ll hang us in the Louvre,” then immediately annotates herself in speech: “Down the back, but who cares, still the Louvre.” She’s completely in the moment without ever losing sight of it, and the shift to spoken word makes her seem human, accessible. Later, on “Sober II (Melodrama)”, she recounts a party memory, “You asked if I was feeling it, I’m psycho high,” capturing the apprehension that rises when the party is slipping beyond the limits of control. When she sings, “I love you til you call the cops on me” on “Writer in the Dark”, she stretches her voice to a painfully human falsetto.
All the while, Lorde sprinkles brief moments of self-awareness to remind us that she’s in on the melodrama of it all. On “Homemade Dynamite”, the music drops away and Lorde gently mimics the sound of an explosion before the chorus kicks back in. It’s a great, intimate touch.
Even more interesting than Lorde’s admirable gifts as a singer and lyricist, however, are the consistently bold musical choices on the record. Simply put, there are some weird moments on Melodrama, so out of place on a major commercial pop record that they could only be there because Lorde insisted on it. In the exact middle of the album, “Hard Feelings/Loveless” breaks down into something bordering on industrial noise. Several songs—“Green Light”, “The Louvre”, “Writer in the Dark”, and “Supercut”—feature gratuitous outros. Individually and aggregate, these quirks contribute to a album-wide intrigue and, more importantly, a sense that there’s someone behind this music, a real human with real interests and experiences that created what you’re hearing. That’s a rare thing.
Melodrama is technically a concept album about a single night at a party, but that’s a dispensable framework. Each song can stand alone as a look at coming into your own in life and love. If you had to pick best songs, you might pick “The Louvre”, a smart slice of the feeling of falling for someone. “Summer slipped us underneath her tongue,” is one of the best lines about wild summer nights in years. Or you might pick “Writer in the Dark”, a delicious revenge ballad that finds Lorde at her most emotionally raw. Or “Supercut”, the high-energy retrospective that honors lost love. “Hard Feelings/Loveless” is another candidate. One of the most ambitious pop songs this year, it stitches together a ballad about a collapsing relationship and a “voice-of-a-generation”-baiting chorus with an industrial screech that would fit on Yeezus. But to pick any of these songs risks diminishing the rest, and who would want to do that?
There’s a catch: there’s a nonzero chance that these songs chart terribly. If “Green Light” is any indicator, honoring the muse might not pay off in chart performance. This raises a potential comparison to Carly Rae Jepsen’s fantastic Emotion, the latest standard for an album that gets excellent reviews but underperforms commercially. But where Jepsen put out an immaculate homage to 80s pop, Lorde has released a deeply relatable personal statement, something people are always ready to buy.
Melodrama closes on “Perfect Places,” where she discovers that there’s no promised port in the storm at the party, or anywhere else, for that matter—“What the fuck are perfect places any way?” On the way to that realization, though, she’s learned something wiser beyond her 20 years and something we can all afford to note: we can actively create refuge for ourselves. On “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” she sings, “I care for myself like I used to care about you.” Self-care has allowed Lorde to make something extraordinary and authentic, something that takes you by the hand and assures you that you can survive and thrive in the same sea of emotion. A