Lorde always seemed destined for more than “Royals”. While her biggest hit to date introduced the world to her trademark minimal production and sharp, casually caustic songwriting, the 2013 single never quite did justice to the young New Zealand singer’s full appeal. Her unpretentious explorations of adolescence and life transition were better expressed elsewhere on her debut, Pure Heroine, with songs like the earnest “Buzzcut Season” and the dark, doomed teen romance of “Tennis Court”. These tracks pointed to an emerging, idiosyncratic artist who inflected radio pop with a rare strain of candidness, boldly scaling her music to the proportions and limitations of everyday life where most went for stadium-sized universality.
The release of her long-anticipated sophomore effort Melodrama recalls the artistic trajectory of another singer who rose to pop prominence as a teenager, Fiona Apple. If “Royals” was Lorde’s “Criminal”, a smash hit that nonetheless elided her best talents, Melodrama is her When the Pawn Hits…. While more pop-oriented and, ironically, less angst-ridden than Apple’s masterpiece, Melodrama is a similarly incisive follow-up that hones the deeper cuts from her debut and functions best as a full album.
Lorde continues to mine the uncertainties of youth, the tribulations of romance, and an ambivalence toward partying as her primary source material. While the triumphant piano pop of “Green Light” may have served as the world’s rapturous introduction to the album, it is perhaps the moody, sultry “Sober” that best encapsulates Melodrama as a whole. The song introduces themes of interdependence and possessiveness, captured by a particularly colorful retelling of “Jack and Jill”, that surface regularly throughout the album, as on “The Louvre” and the unhinged ballad “Writer in the Dark”.
As timeless and broadly relatable as these romantic ruminations can be, Lorde also situates the album in a particular moment in time, speaking to the instability, uncertainty, and demoralization so many young people face and the efforts they may take to escape. “Perfect Places” is a case in point: Lorde rips open the surface of a summer spent reveling to reveal the desperation underneath. “We are young and we’re ashamed… All our heroes fading / Now I can’t stand to be alone,” she sings, her candor striking on such a joyful-sounding track. Lorde often positions herself as a representative of jaded and disenfranchised millennials and does a surprisingly decent job pulling it off, cheekily dubbing herself part of the “loveless generation” on “Hard Feelings/Loveless”.
Beyond its lyrical concerns, Melodrama is also an exquisite feast of sound. Confident enough to allow for slow, measured pacing, the album’s restraint and relative brevity enhance its message and convey a self-contained singularity. The hip-hop and R&B-inspired beats often serve more as texture than propulsive rhythm, especially when combined with the gothic grandeur of “Homemade Dynamite”, stabs of guitar on “The Louvre”, or sumptuous strings on “Sober II (Melodrama)”.
Now more than ever, Lorde shows herself adept at telegraphing the stylistic mindsets of other iconic pop stars without ever betraying her own individuality. Her stuttered pronunciation of “d-d-d-dynamite” on “Homemade Dynamite” recalls the winking affectations of Lana Del Rey, while “Sober” brings to mind True Romance-era Charli XCX. In subsuming these influences into her own vision, the album paradoxically becomes all the more poignant, confident, and vital.
Melodrama finds Lorde producing the best work of her career so far, crafting an ambitious and uncompromising pop statement suffused with intensely personal artistry. Both jubilant and frightened, insecure and proud, the album establishes her as a pop star on her terms. She embraces her contradictions, and in so doing becomes vibrant, dynamic, and electric.