[10 October 2013]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
We all know how it started: a young, aspiring musician is spotted by a wise industry type who notes the incredible talent she has on display, signs her to a record deal, but keeps her quiet for years on end, slowly sharpening songwriting, delivery, and overall aesthetic until the time is just right to unleash her onto the world, culminating in a gigantic level of attention and admiration for the release of her first big single.
That musician, of course, is Alicia Keys.
There has been much griping in certain corners of the press about the origin stories of the 16-year-old artist named Lorde, a New Zealand songstress born Ella Yelich-O’Connor who just recently topped the U.S. charts with her debut song “Royals”. Despite the haunting appeal of Lorde’s sound and her evocative lyrics, some are quick to rush to judgment, calling her manufactured and pre-packaged. Of course, the only way to generate this type of backlash is to have songs prominent enough to encourage it, and some of the haranguing that’s been going around is simply because Pure Heroine (Lorde’s first album following an EP in late 2012) sounds so fully-formed upon arrival, much like the young Ms. Keys before her. Tailoring away on your songs for four years certainly helps, but we’ve all seen the buzz-backlash cycle enough times before to know that such criticisms about such mature work coming from a voice so young is all just a part of the process.
While some critics have been quick to draw comparisons to other blog-bred chanteuses like Lana Del Ray, in truth, the hushed, brooding dream-pop of Lorde’s sound is actually closer in spirit to the provocatively incongruent poetry of Lisa Germano than it is to Del Ray’s lethargic line-reads. The album’s production, provided by Goodnight Nurse’s Joel Little, uses heavily-reverbed synth sounds and simplistic drum patterns to frame Lorde’s words and evoke an ethereal, nighttime soundscape that just so happens to congeal into sturdy pop songs, sometimes in exciting, unexpected ways.
Little knows what he’s working with, and virtually every success and failure of Pure Heroine can be traced back to Lorde’s voice and lyrics. As those who have heard “Royals” know, Lorde’s voice is a powerful instrument, particularly when stacked on top of itself like a Queen song. It’s a force that is direct, straightforward, but also imminently relatable: her words sound like they were written by her, sung by her, and are about her.
There is no pretense of performance on this album, and the reason for this is that Lorde is so well-versed on what ultimately makes a song effective. While she disses the complete lack of relatability of rap star bling and riches in “Royals”, its moments like the steady “Team” wherein her weariness of the whole party-song industry shines through, plainly intoning “I’m kind of over gettin’ told to throw my hands up in the air” and instead searching for fun and memories on her own. On album highlight “Ribs”, Lorde conjures a quiet kissing-under-strobe lights beauty as she talks about spilled drinks and having Broken Social Scene’s “Lovers’ Spit” on repeat, which itself conjures up a very specific mood and atmosphere; the steady club beat playing underneath her words sound more like a heartbeat than it does a floor-filler, which may very well describe Pure Heroine‘s entire aesthetic.
Although it may sound strange for some to hear Lorde talk about how it “drives you crazy, growing old” in “Ribs”, part of what makes Lorde’s lyric book so appealing is how self-aware it is. She knows she’s a part of the Millennial generation, but even she can’t pinpoint its own philosophies, informing us that “Baby, the Internet raised us / Or maybe people are jerks” in “A World Alone”. Empowerment is a large theme that runs through the album, making a case for people calling themselves violent gladiators in “Glory and Gore”, which itself feels like the dark flipside of Katy Perry’s self-aggrandizing “Roar”.
Pure Heroine isn’t really a romantic album, although there is a “you” that comes up frequently, unspecific both in its purpose and usage. Lorde “lives in a hologram with you” on “Buzzcut Season” and notes that said figure and her are “on each other’s team” in new single “Team”, but, much like “Ribs”, her tales and imagery still come with a sense of longing, as in whatever suburban excitement she and her friends find, it will never be truly filling.
That being said, even though Lorde can pull out some rather incredible imagery (as on “400 Lux”, where she notes “We’re never done with killing time / Can I kill it with you? / Until its veins run red and blue”), sometimes her tracks circle a general theme but never get to the heart of the matter at hand. A lot of songs, for example, have imagery involving teeth (“400 Lux”, “Royals”, “White Teeth Teens”), but it never feels like an image that’s properly used as a connecting agent: it just feels like a trope she continues to return to simply because it’s a specific concept she likes to frequently free-associate with. Many of the song hooks are well-placed, but by the time Pure Heroine gets to “Still Sane”, the album’s most forgettable track, a lot of the production tricks and elements that we’ve heard before start to feel a bit tired and used, the textures and colors sounding a bit homogenous by album’s end; which, for a disc that clocks in at barely over 37 minutes, is not a good sign. Another drawback: opening the album with “Tennis Court”, one of the most conventional-sounding songs on the album, which, we learn, is not a pose that suits her well.
Nitpicking aside, Pure Heroine remains a lush, engaging experience. Lorde’s sudden international success is most welcome in such an overcrowded, singles-oriented marketplace as we have today, and her songwriting alone may very well turn her into some sort of Leonard Cohen for the tween set. Regardless of what ultimately may become of her reception, her voice is unique and powerfully intriguing. If Pure Heroine is Lorde’s first full offering to us, it’s incredibly exciting to think about what she may show us next.