Lorde and her 2013 debut album Pure Heroine were legitimately pop paradigm shifters.
I say that with zero hyperbole. With Pure Heroine and “Royals,” Lorde tapped into something people (but especially young people) wanted without knowing it. She came at a time where club pop was literally past its zombie state, and not only did she provide a one-off cure, but a template going forward. And that last part is what puts her above, like Gotye, Lorde wasn’t just big, she was impactful. Imagining our pop landscape without her triggers a bunch of questions: does anyone pay attention to Alessia Cara, Daya, or Halsey? How about Meghan Trainor, does “All About That Bass” catch on? How different does 1989 sound? (Sidebar: you could say parts of Melodrama sound kinda like 1989, but I’d argue that’s because 1989 quietly took notes from Lorde; there are similar vocal cues throughout, and “Blank Space” is straight up Max Martin-ized Pure Heroine.)
So while Lorde made a pop market for herself, she doesn’t seem interested in continuing down it on Melodrama, and the album’s all the better for it. She works outside Pure Heroine‘s icy, rap-inspired beats and tales of teenage ennui, instead collaborating with fun. member, Bleachers frontman, and Actual Peter Pan Jack Antonoff for a loosely narrative record about partying through, or possibly partying in, heartbreak in New York City. Musically, Melodrama trades in its predecessor’s minimalism for more dynamic arrangements that use a wider variety of unstable synths, strings, the occasional guitar, and a lot of piano; the differences are as stark as the two albums’ covers.
Melodrama is a pop album, but it isn’t really a “pop” album, if that makes sense. If you consider pop music as a spectrum with “commerce” on one end represented by Divide and Memories…Do Not Open and Blonde and Art Angels standing in for “art” on the other, then Melodrama exists closer to the art side than most Top 40 records (PH included). It’s probably just a little further along the art side than, say, ANTI. While its songs are written as pop songs, structured as pop songs, and sound the way pop songs do, none of them sound engineered for radio play, nor are they meant to chase off anyone here from “Team.” The album wants to play around with pop, but on its terms more than the mainstream’s, and is inclusive without being compromising.
In that way, Melodrama is an extension of Lorde herself: an oddball whose good faith quirks compel far more often than they frustrate. There are tons flourishes on this album that could fall flat–I’m talking about the way Lorde drags out “And then they are boooored of me” on “Liability,” or “Broadcast the boom-boom-boom-boom/and make’em all dance to it” during the most airy, graceful parts of “The Louvre,” or the “Bwowh” in “Homemade Dynamite”–and would feel contrived coming from anyone else, but from Ella Yelich-O”Connor? They’re charming as hell (the sneering chant on “Loveless” is a brick, but fuckin’ nobody can make spelling in a song sound cool). The quirks extend to the music, too. The bouncing “Homemade Dynamite” gets closest to radio-ready, thanks to a steady, stuttering beat, and that effortlessly cool “Blow shit up with homemade d-d-dynamite” chorus, and I’m sure there’s a less interesting version of “Supercut” that takes off the stadium-ready synthpop track’s extended fade out, but generally, these songs are best when played together.
Look no further than Melodrama‘s peak run in the middle. Sure, “Hard Feelings/Loveless” is the weak link in the chain, but it’s bolstered by everything else. “Homemade Dynamite” is where the album’s off-center pop first gels, and then it launches into “The Louvre,” which balances Lorde’s best songwriting with her most interesting production. “Liability” is the heartbreaker that pumps a bunch of loneliness into her Too-Muchness, while “Sober II (Melodrama)” is the moment of blunt realization. The arc masterfully traces the “I tried to drink it away” feeling of going to a party to your emotions catching up with you and blowing it all to hell (the exact moment of delivery is the gloriously noisy part of “Hard Feelings”), and the immediate fallout, and while doing so, it’s some of the best music Lorde’s ever made.
Lorde’s writing, even at its most gleeful on “The Louvre,” cops to impermanence and eventual loss, and it’s her ability to weave you in her psyche that elevates Melodrama. She’s been a writerly lyricist since the beginning, but she outdoes herself here. Not only is her writing tighter and more empathetic, but she has these hand grenade one-liners, like “I care for myself the way I used to care for you,” and “They’ll talk about us, and how we kissed and killed each other.” It’s the lyrics that make “Supercut” and “Hard Feelings” work, even if she doesn’t overcome ho-hum arrangements elsewhere.
Melodrama’s quality is a relief for an album I was nervous about during pre-release. I’ve tried for months to get into “Green Light” beyond the lovely piano breakdown, but it just doesn’t come together; the tepid chorus doesn’t match the energetic verses. “Sober” has a similar issue, where the screwy vocals and pulsating beat build and build tension that never leads to catharsis. In a New York Times profile, Lorde talked about the time pop music warlock Max Martin discussed her “incorrect songwriting” with her (other sidebar: the details of this are now in dispute. The Times piece states that “incorrect songwriting” refers to “Green Light,” while in a podcast this week, Lorde said it was actually about “Royals.” Times writer Jonah Weiner disagrees somewhat, but the long and short of it is that the phrase “incorrect songwriting” is now a virtue in the Lorde canon). The guts of what Martin’s referencing is Lorde’s tendency to zag instead of zig with her songwriting choices; sometimes, like going from palm-muted guitars to floating synths on “The Louvre,” it works, and when it means petering out on “Sober” and “Green Light,” it doesn’t. Ditto for “Writer in the Dark” which is too undercooked musically to stand next to Lorde’s exaggerated Kate Bush impression and potent lyrics. It’s no where near enough to sink the album, but still, Melodrama isn’t without blemishes.
The other kind of a drag is that Melodrama‘s mix just seems off. It’s hyper-compressed, tinny, and even a little grating at times because it sounds like everything’s fighting to be heard over everything else. This feels like a bug and not a feature; I’m thinking of the most anthemic bits of “Perfect Places,” where Lorde’s multi-tracked vocals clash with synths, pianos, and a wet noodle drum track (speaking of: why are the drums so inert on like, 65% of this record?). I listened to songs from Melodrama next to The Weeknd, Tegan and Sara, Frank Ocean, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, and Rihanna, just to make sure I wasn’t crazy or looking for a reason to yell at Jack Antonoff (who, aside from getting his smudgy fingerprints on the drums here, is largely fine), but even when Melodrama has the better arrangements, it just sounds clipped.
Even if I like it more with my head than my heart, there’s still so much on Melodrama to dig into that it’s a rewarding, emotionally supercharged experience. No matter if the bookends are comparatively flimsy, the core of this thing is excellent, and solidifies Lorde as one of our best young voices in pop. She was a gamechanger in 2013, and she’s the one to catch up with now. But, my favorite thing about Melodrama is that already, this record means a lot to people, and even my reservations melt away in the face of “The Louvre” or “Supercut,” which are impossible to not love. This album has gone from one of the most anticipated ones of the year to one of its most talked about. Melodrama deserves the chatter; let’em talk.