On the eve of her 20th birthday, Ella Yelich-O’Connor excitedly wrote a note to her fans: “I was 16 when most of us met. Can you believe it? I laugh thinking about that me now — that glossy idiot god, princess of her childhood streets, handmade and ugly and sure of herself.”
That note encapsulates so much of what makes Lorde such an endearing and refreshing public figure. There’s an inscrutable quality about her that makes it feel like she’s speaking directly to you; her songs feel like a secret shared between friends. She started her career as an outsider, a preternaturally talented teen from New Zealand — which might as well be Middle-earth to most people — and she relished in that outsider status, painting a vividly romantic picture of disaffected youth, writing songs about grand interior dramas and never leaving your hometown and feeling overwhelmed when you do. She felt like the prototypical everyteen, a direct line into a generation shaped by the internet and a boundary-less world that still felt impossibly small. “Royals,” her most popular song, was about how out-of-step she felt with mainstream culture, and it rang true. But four years is a long time — especially at a young age — and as her world drastically changed, Yelich-O’Connor changed with it.
When Pure Heroine came out in the fall of 2013, it shifted the pop landscape. Despite being inoculated into the major label system when she was 13 and developing within it, Yelich-O’Connor operated at a remove, an ocean separating her from the rest of the world. There was something that felt fresh about what she was doing, and while “Royals” was the only true commercial hit from the album, Pure Heroine’s narcoleptic pop would serve as the blueprint for imitators aiming to recreate the sense of wonder and youthful exuberance that made Lorde so infectious. And while radio has managed to approximate the sound, nothing has come close to capturing the sheer personality behind those songs.
Melodrama makes good on the promise she showed as a precocious teenager, when she alternated between seeming wise beyond her years and blissfully, intoxicatingly naïve. Yelich-O’Connor has grown up, and her situation is different this time around. She’s not an outsider anymore, at least not in any traditional sense of the word. She spent a lot of the last four years living the life of a pop star — traveling the world many times over, meeting and befriending the celebrities she used to admire from afar, performing at awards shows and festivals and walking down red carpets. The airplane anxiety she expressed on “Tennis Court” seems downright quaint now. The suburbs are no longer her home, high school hallways no longer her domain. She’s experienced life as almost no one else listening can relate to, but there’s one thing that happened that makes all that other shit seem insignificant: the first heartbreak. That’s universal. It doesn’t matter you who are. It’s indiscriminate, and it is brutal.
And it seems like the end of the relationship that inspired most of this album was, at least in part, broken apart by the stressors of fame. On “Writer In The Dark,” Yelich-O’Connor alludes to how her career played a factor: “Stood on my chest and kept me down/ Hated hearing my name on the lips of a crowd/ Did my best to exist just for you.” Lorde doesn’t shy away from the effect that fame had on her; instead, she interrogates the ways it’s changed her, made her harder to be around, isolated her from the people who once cared for her. In interviews, she talked about how she shied away from the spotlight following her breakup. She escaped her new existence whenever she could, traveling back to New Zealand to spend time with old friends; she moved to New York City, a place that can make even the most famous people feel anonymous. On “Liability,” she addresses the feeling that she’s an inconvenience to everyone around her: “So they pull back, make other plans/ I understand.”
With Melodrama, she retreats back into the world that shaped her. She returns to the setting of some of her best songs: the house party, that perennial teenage institution. Lorde based the entire album around it — a loose concept chronicling the drunken rush, the messy camaraderie, the half-remembered mistakes. Functioning as a barometer of how drastically her life has changed, not just as a result of her fame but because of what adulthood has put her through, the party turns out to be less comforting and familiar than it used to be. Instead, it’s sort of menacing and it contains too many reminders of what came before. And as much as the album’s trajectory mirrors that of a party, the same characteristics can be applied to moving to a new city or the arc of a relationship: an ecstatic high at the start that turns bitter and dysfunctional as time goes on. One crazy party can seem like it lasts a lifetime when you’re young, and Melodrama channels that intense period of self-discovery and growth into a sharp, thematically rich, and dizzyingly dynamic album.
Sonically, Melodrama is an ambitious accomplishment. It takes what worked about Pure Heroine and stretches it to new and exciting places, making for a varied and more diverse listen. On her first album, Lorde primarily worked with Joel Little (a mostly unknown quantity from New Zealand), but in-vogue producer Jack Antonoff takes over as her creative partner-in-crime on Melodrama. Antonoff does his best work when he’s able to bounce his ideas and influences off someone with a strong creative drive — see Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Grimes, and now Lorde — and Yelich-O’Connor’s strengths start to solidify themselves in light of working with someone new. The icy beats built around negative space, a flair for the operatic — the elements that carry over from Pure Heroine are apparent. Antonoff’s fingerprints are most visible in the big-picture numbers (lead single “Green Light,” the effervescent “Supercut”), which feel like welcome reprieves from Yelich-O’Connor’s stately minimalism, like that one song at the party that brings everyone together for an impassioned group sing-along.
Melodrama sounds sleek, modern, and ornate. Together, the two of them have created just so many downright cool moments on this album. Take the structure of centerpiece “Hard Feelings / Loveless,” which moves from padded 1989 B-side to what sounds like a sea of robots crying to bratty schoolyard taunt throughout its six minutes, with each transition feeling completely earned. Consider the unadorned guitar that opens and closes “The Louvre” and the piercing strings courtesy of Owen Pallett on “Sober II (Melodrama).” And then there are the little adlibs that Yelich-O’Connor pulls throughout: the explosive pshh on “Homemade Dynamite,” the stretched-out poiiiiiison on “Liability,” the chk chk on “Perfect Places.” Moves like that display an unprecedented confidence. There was a lot of cool indifference on Pure Heroine — like the outside-looking-in admiration of “White Teeth Teens” or the slightly self-conscious individualism of “A World Alone” — but most of it felt like wishful teenage posturing; on Melodrama, Lorde is becoming more sure of herself as both a songwriter and a person.
That resounding confidence also translates to her lyrics, which are filled with delightfully weird twists of phrase and bits of cutting, concise wisdom. “I overthink your punctuation use/ Not my fault, just a thing that my mind do,” she quips on “The Louvre,” a decidedly 21st century problem that she makes feel timeless. “Oh god, I’m closing my teeth around the liquor-wet lime/ Midnight, lose my mind, I know you’re feeling it too,” she squeezes into a single breath on “Sober.” Album closer “Perfect Places” is perhaps her best portraiture of the sort of party she’s stumbling through on Melodrama: “Are you lost enough? Have another drink, get lost in us” — the sort of debaucherous invitation that’s necessary when confronted with the terror of growing up.
But the takeaway from Melodrama isn’t one of recklessness, though there certainly is enough of that within the sloppy narratives that populate the album. It’s about waking up the next morning and having to reckon with yourself. It’s about finding out who you are outside the context of a relationship that had come to define you, or moving to a new city and feeling truly alone for the very first time. There’s a snap back into focus when you’re thrown into that kind of situation — a click within yourself, a newfound centeredness and self-assuredness that comes only with age. The revelations that Yelich-O’Connor comes to towards the end of the album are simply stated but elemental. “I care about myself the way I used to care about you,” she sings on “Hard Feelings.” “You’re not who you thought you were,” she repeats like a mantra on “Liability (Reprise).”
And as much as Melodrama is an album about young adulthood and numbing yourself to the pain and making regrettable mistakes, what I maybe love most about it is that it’s very much an album about listening to music and loving music and recognizing the ways that music infects our lives, changing the way we view things. It pops up time and again in Lorde’s lyrics — “I hear brand new sounds in my mind,” “I’ll blow my brains out to the radio.” When you feel that throb of the party in your bones, it can set something off inside you. On “The Louvre,” she projects her inner dialogue into a muffled beat: “Megaphone to my chest/ Broadcast the boom boom boom/ And make ‘em all dance to it.” Melodrama treats music — both the creation and consumption of it — as an emotional utility, and as much as music has been there during the pivotal moments of her own life, Lorde has made an album that will surely inform other people’s lives for years to come.
Melodrama is out now via Republic/Lava.