Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Time to go today.
Let’s just say it upfront: “Green Light” is about as perfect a welcome back as possible.
To appreciate how well “Green Light” hits its target, you have to look at where Lorde’s been, compared to where she is; you’ve got to return to “Royals” (“royyyyallss”) for a second. Lorde’s goal was always the mainstream (she signed with a major label when she was 12), but she and “Royals” were an alternative radio hit for months before crossing over. And I feel like Lorde didn’t land on Alternative Radio because she made for great programming next to like, Phantogram, but because she made pop music that wouldn’t fit the narrow definition of pop in 2013. She didn’t conform to the styles of Alt. as much as she just didn’t sound mainstream, both on “Royals” and the rest of debut Pure Heroine. This means that even once she started notching hit songs and going to award shows with Taylor Swift, Lorde still had a core fanbase of art kids, and a critical reputation as a highly respected genuine weirdo. If that was all, then “Green Light” could just be whatever, but Lorde’s also an artist with multiple top ten hits and a double platinum (with no features) debut coming back after a three-year absence, so she has to hit a broad appeal out of the gate while still coming at the mainstream from an alternative bend.
And “Green Light” does that. It’s different enough from Pure Heroine that it reflects artistic development (and, if you feel like being cynical, she can market it as “Like nothing I’ve done before,” which–while true–definitely feels like an oversell) while still sounding like Lorde, and it’ll play on pop radio without being mistaken for a Daya track. As a song, it’s designed to fit in on your local alternative station, the SNL stage, Billboard’s Hot 100, and sometime between 9:50 and 10:15 in Indio/New Orleans/Randall’s Island/Manchester without ever sounding too in or out of place.
The song will fit different formats because 1. Lorde’s always lived between genres, and 2. it jumps moods a few times. “Green Light” opens with just Lorde’s vocals and single “smash the keys” piano chords before slowly introducing production flourishes and some Pure Heroine-style vocal layering on a line about teeth (and people try to call this song a sell out move). Just as that verse sounds like it’s about to crescendo, a dance beat kicks in with faster disco piano chords and a hint of strings for a prechorus where Lorde sings “But I hear sounds in my mind/Brand new sounds in my mind” over music that honest to God sounds exciting. It’s easily the best part of the song.
But then comes a chorus that, for as otherwise canny and good as “Green Light” is, fumbles. A few dramatic drum hits announce “I’M WAITING FOR IT, THAT GREEN LIGHT, I WANT IT” and it sounds like the song’s going to leap…but doesn’t. Instead, it pulls back, burying the piano from earlier in a pedestrian beat punctuated with handclaps and a repeated crowd chorus while Lorde gets a little drowned out herself. It just doesn’t work. There’s nothing especially dance-able, nor does it sound as cathartic as the build-up implies, and there’s no rush. It sounds like an unhappy marriage between “I Love It” and “Pompeii” that contests Coachella profits in the divorce. It just sounds sort of by-numbers, which is weird for Lorde. So, why the change?
We need to talk about Jack Antonoff.
Antonoff first came to the masses as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter/producer in the Grammy winning, semi-insufferable indie pop band fun., and also releases material solo under the moniker Bleachers. He’s an habitual co-writer/producer for pop artists, most prominently for two songs for Taylor Swift’s 1989: “I Wish You Would” (a song I adore), and “Out of the Woods” (a song I always think I like more than I do). Between collaborating with T.Swift again and Zayn on “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” and working with Lorde as a co-producer on Melodrama as a whole, it’s entirely possible trying to position himself as Brian Eno or Danger Mouse-style figure: a hireable auteur producer who brings their own touch and sensibilities to big-ticket projects along with the air of artistic legitimacy.
Only, Antonoff isn’t good enough to merit the status. I like some stuff he’s done, but his work is hit and miss overall; his default style is to overload a track with the plasticky 80s synths and textures that now signify festival pop, keep the rhythms flatfooted, and completely disregard the low end. When he succeeds on “I Wanna Get Better” or “I Wish You Would,” it’s because the songs brute force their way through choruses that blow up the knots the verses twist themselves into. As a producer, he lacks the fine motor skill needed to reconcile “Green Light”‘s frantically rhythmic prechorus and the chorus’s big delivery. It’s the drums that really turn me off the hook here: the live drumming stops too early, and the drumpads are too soft. I’ve heard “Green Light” compared to Grimes a couple of times, but it doesn’t mesh. Listen to “Flesh without Blood.” Do you hear how it sounds like Grimes sampled meteor impacts for the drums? You don’t get that with “Green Light.”
Maybe I’m being nitpicky, though. The verses are solid, and that prechorus is to die for; when everything but the piano loop drops out about here, I get hyped every time. I like “Green Light,” at the outset here, it’s a better comeback single than “Perfect Illusion” and certainly “Shape of You,” and I’d even put it above “Hello” in terms of getting me excited to hear the album, albeit with reservations. The production’s sort of a letdown, but the songwriting isn’t; get ready to sink your teeth into Melodrama, and for the glory (and gore) of the Lorde.