The Flipside #4: Lorde’s ‘Melodrama’

Critics are hailing Lorde's sophomore effort as a pop masterpiece, but does her new album live up to the hype or does its meaning get lost in the Melodrama?

Sawdey: Brice, I don’t know if you remember, but early last year, we did our last episode of the PopTalk podcast, where we addressed the whole “poptimism vs. rockism” debate. We made note of how even with increasingly pessimistic thinkpieces claiming that critics do nothing but champion pop stars that once were derided in the realms of “authentic” rock music, such arguments were astoundingly self-sabotaging, especially now in 2017, where an artist with the stature of, say, Katy Perry, still suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

So for every fawning postulation of what Taylor Swift’s next album will sound like, where do those “authentic” pop artists lie these days? If all your favorite critics (or just the Metacritic consensus) are to be believed, Lorde may have the answer.

When her new record Melodrama dropped, it was fascinating to note how even with the poppy Jack Antonoff-produced lead single “Green Light” getting buzz, radio didn’t embrace Lorde the way it used to. You could argue that her stark pop-minimalist productions were no longer in vogue, but The Chainsmokers just hit it big with the inescapable “Closer”, a surprisingly sparse pop production.

So what happened? It’s hard to pinpoint, as Lorde, only 20 years old, still writes songs about complex, psychologically terse subjects, eschewing simple lyricism in favor of complex, metaphor-heavy journeys into surreal and compelling situations. After a four year break between albums where she did live dates, collaborated on a stellar Disclosure song, and worked on a Hunger Games soundtrack, did Lorde just buck those poptimism trends by releasing a pop album that everyone can agree is just across-the-board excellent? Or is there something we’re missing?

Ezell: As I mention in that podcast episode, I do think that some of what Chris Richards says in his Washington Post piece on poptimism, “Do you want poptimism? Or do you want the truth?” holds true for a lot of music criticism. With certain pop artists, critics do take on a kind of posturing that repels good critical discourse and interesting musical analysis. When I read many reviews of Beyoncé’s records, for instance — which, in the case of stunning works like Lemonade, are in my view certainly deserving of praise — I get the sense that some critics are only interested in reinforcing an unshakeable consensus rather than actually making an argument. (I wrote about this phenomenon in response to one particularly bad piece on Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled LP that was published in Grantland, R.I.P.)

I am not of the curmudgeonly view that music criticism these days amounts to little more than “lifestyle reporting,” but in my experience, there is a certain class of pop artist for whom critics abandon normal standards of analysis. When the early reviews for Melodrama began forming an almost uniformly positive critical mass, I feared the worst: here’s another record that music journalists need to be good more than actually is good.

What a delight, then, when Melodrama first erupted from my headphones. My expectations for Lorde’s sophomore outing weren’t too high; Pure Heroine, while slickly produced and catchy at times, still feels like a tentative opening statement. Melodrama boasts a confidence of an artist with decade’s worth of experience, even though the 20-year-old Lorde is still relatively young to the industry. In addition to the feeling of critical groupthink, Melodrama‘s producer credit gave me pause prior to listening. Antonoff’s songwriting and production have never blown me away, but here he proves the right fit for Lorde’s songwriting. There’s a nocturnal mood given off by the production that befits the loose concept behind the album. From what I glean from interviews, Lorde’s ideas for the production were formed at least a little bit prior to Antonoff’s involvement; listening to Melodrama, Lorde’s vision stands out above all else, and Antonoff’s presence is closer to a hired hand rather than auteur.

Normally, when you say something like “everyone can agree this is excellent,” I feel like recoiling. Few things bore me, if not outright frustrate me, than statements like those, which amounts to a self-serious repackaging the sentiment “100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” But taken in a more benign fashion, I think your claim about Melodrama hits the mark dead on. For those who want their pop to be all about the hooks, look no further than the fist-pumping chorus of “Green Light” or the soon-to-be sing-along classic “Perfect Places”. Anyone who prefers pop music to exhibit a kind of conceptual bent, Lorde’s gripping examination of modern night life will prove a refreshing break from more generic, broad brushstroke songwriting by the likes of Taylor Swift.

Since we both feel similarly about Melodrama‘s greatness, let’s dive more into the details of the album. What stands out to you about it the most?

Sawdey: “It’s the lyrics, dummy.” –Author Unknown (Maybe me, I dunno)

In all seriousness, Lorde’s skills as a lyricist were evident even on The Love Club EP from early 2013, hitting the unique moments of larger themes. Take “Hard Feelings / Loveless” for example. It’s a breakup song, but that opening set of lines is what captures the unique moments:

Please could you be tender

And I will sit close to you

Let’s give it a minute

Before we admit that we’re through

It’s not about the breakup as just wanting to savor that one moment before the inevitable hits. It’s sad and beautiful at the same time, and much like the works of another dance-pop heartbreak geniuses like Robyn or White Sea, I can’t immediately reference another song that captures this distinct part of the breakup process so distinctly. Then on other songs like “Writer in the Dark”, you got memorable couplets like “I still feel you, now and then / Slow like pseudo-ephedrine”. Lorde doesn’t use similes a lot, but when she does, she makes ’em count.

I must say though, gifted as Jack Antonoff is, I do pine for that unique atmosphere she conjured up with producer Joel Little for Pure Heronie a bit more. Antonoff still writes and produces for the artist in question, but Melodrama‘s music and hooks are a bit homogenized this time out, some keyboard textures and piano phrases hazing together track-to-track. It’s a minor quibble, as Lorde’s writing (along with a nice co-write assist from Tove Lo on the album highlight “Homemade Dynamite”) still shines, but musically it took a bit of a step back for me. It was less alien than her debut, which contained mystery and intrigue, which in turn made you wonder where this songwriting uber-talent was lying all these years.

Ezell: “Writer in the Dark” also features one of Lorde’s sharpest proclamations: “I love you ’til you call the cops on me,” a kind of Millennial update on the Bonnie and Clyde trope. The more I return to Melodrama, the more lines stand out to me: “Well, supper slipped us underneath her tongue” (“The Louvre”), “I know that it’s exciting running through the night / But every perfect summer’s eating me alive until you’re gone” (“Liability”), the list goes on. The metaphor of reliving a relationship through a mental “Supercut” might be my favorite lyrical conceit of Lorde’s thus far.

It occurs to me now that it’s all too appropriate that we’re discussing Melodrama, an album about being alone in the city at night, after our last Flipside column on Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, which also centers on isolation and existential angst with many nighttime scenes in clubs and at fancy parties. But whereas Malick’s esoteric approach to the subject invites at best a cult audience, Melodrama takes the specific reflections of Lorde’s about isolation and nightlife and presents them in ways that can connect with broad audiences, without sacrificing any sophistication.

Lorde’s vocal phrasing on “Green Light” conveys the simultaneously intense and hushed whispers of gossip (“Well those rumors they have big teeth / Hope they bite you”). The Broadway-esque confessional mood of “Liability” and “Writer in the Dark” capture the tension that comes about from holding something in that you also really want to proclaim out loud. Melodrama is at once confessional and universal, no small feat for an artist of Lorde’s stature.

There’s also the matter of Melodrama‘s gorgeous sleeve art, by artist Sam McKinniss. Even before you press “play” on the LP, so much of its lyrical and musical matter gets communicated by McKinniss’ rendition of Lorde. The half-legibility of Lorde’s face, the chilly blue light that cools most of the bed, and the smattering of light in the lower half of the image evoke the journey from the recesses of night to the morning’s light that unfolds throughout the album.

Thinking about the many strengths of Melodrama, the single feature that to me explains why, as you put it, most people would find this to be an excellent album is rooted in the dichotomy of introversion and extroversion. Most of Lorde’s lyrics here delve into difficult parts of her psyche: feeling alone even when surrounded by crowds, trying to revivify a lost love, among others. Yet the music — which as I’ve already said brilliantly amplifies those themes — offers hooks that anyone can sing along to, melodies capable of bouncing around in the heads of even the most anti-poptimist listeners.

Although Melodrama‘s concept traces its origins in part to the dissolution of Lorde’s long-term relationship with James Lowe, it doesn’t give the impression of a tabloid-style expose or a “tell-all” account. Instead, Lorde zooms in on those emotions and feelings that matter the most in learning how to be alone as a young person in the world. That she does so while also producing and writing some of the sharpest pop of the past few years says a great deal about her talents.

Sawdey: It does. Yet somehow, as much as I love the Lorde, these two albums still feel like they haven’t achieved Masterpiece Status as of yet. “Liability” does pulsate with West End-ballad pomp, you’re right, but that and the easy hook of “Supercut” sometimes comes off as a bit cloying, a bit obvious in communicating their obvious intents.

As bold as Melodrama is with its writing, Antonoff still works within his Antonoffian space — keyboards abound, strong piano-based lead lines, looping drums that simultaneously define the song but also get the hell out of the way of the singer — and it all still somewhat blurs together. I’m still going to blast “Homemade Dynamite” any given day of the week and have already caught myself humming “Writer in the Dark” more than a few times, but as bold a leap as this is, something tells me we haven’t reached peak-Lorde, which is both frustrating and exciting in equal measures. Melodrama is a fantastic package, a notable statement, but still at the end of the day leaves me wanting.

So what say you, Mr. Ezell? Are you on Lorde’s “Team” or are you still waiting for it, that green light, you want it?

Ezell: A big part of my enthusiasm for Melodrama can be explained by how unprepared I was to experience it. A good friend of mine recommended the album to me, and initially, I was somewhat incredulous. The music of Pure Heroine didn’t cohere with the exultations my friend made about Melodrama. (Then again, that same friend also introduced me to Panic! At the Disco’s Death of a Bachelor, a record I was sure I’d hate, which ended up being one of my favorite records of 2016. Moral of the story: keep this friend around.) Conceptually and musically, Melodrama is a case of deserved poptimism: if other pop stars follow Lorde’s lead, and if she herself can keep up the momentum from this record, things bode quite well for the next crop of major pop releases.

However, because my thoughts about Melodrama come from being surprised by it, I suspect in time I will cool down to it somewhat. Already, for instance, I’m not sure why we need a reprise of “Liability” late into the record, particularly since it amounts to little more than warped vocals in the style of Imogen Heap. I hadn’t thought about the issue of poptimism until you mentioned it in talking about this album, but the term helpfully describes the feeling I’m left with when the triumphant chorus of “Perfect Places” sings its last note: optimistic about the capabilities of mainstream, stadium-filling pop. Pure Heroine didn’t sell me on Lorde; Melodrama‘s convinced me that she’s an undeniable talent, one who sees the pop album as a much bigger canvas than many might take it to be.