The grisly state of American chart pop is good news for Lorde, who introduced herself almost four years ago with a song in which she reveled in being out of place and time. Keeping its title promise, Melodrama arrives as a self-contained song suite about the kind of love that makes you, according to one early track, blow up like homemade d-d-d-dynamite. As a critic ambivalent about “Royals” who warmed up to her starting with a Hunger Games soundtrack she oversaw, I want to be careful weighing Melodrama‘s merits. With music and arrangements co-created by Jack Antonoff, Taylor Swift’s collaborator on 1989, Melodrama has a tentative, ungainly thump, a combination for which I’ll give Lorde the credit. The template is Swift’s “Blank Space” – the rapped verses, the tick-tock inevitability of its chorus – but the surface sheen wiped with a muddy rag. The tracks are heard as if through mist. Its fragments of big balladry, squelched climaxes, and muttered maxims, familiar to fans of Pure Heroine, get foregrounded. Lorde’s decision to act as the irritant on her own tracks prevents Melodrama from being the top-grade pop album that perhaps Antonoff and definitely her record company want. If she’s going to be a royal, it’s on her terms; listeners have to approach her. Although I wrote “decision,” I don’t know to what extent what I hear is the result of a talented singer-songwriter and hot producer papering over a series of aesthetic shortcomings.
Attitudinally, Melodrama still works as a Pure Heroine sequel: it presents a young woman recognizable from undergrad college courses, perhaps away from home for the first time, discovering cigarettes and the extent of her sexual curiosity. Life changes fast when you’re on the edge of twenty-one. A slow one called “Liability,” indebted to “All the Young Dudes,” delineates a familiar kind of self-loathing – the kind she will renounce four tracks later. It’s all there in “The Louvre.” “I overthink your punctuation use,” she admits shortly after noting half her wardrobe lying on his bedroom floor. She calls herself a sweetheart psychopathic crush. Anchored to one of those rumbling electronic beats co-helmed by Flume and American producer Malay, “The Louvre” would have been a cherry bomb of a single for Demi Lovato a couple years ago or Halsey now, but, again, Lorde steps away from the brink. She’s conscious of her presentation; if she calls herself a sweetheart psychopathic crush, she doesn’t sing like one, even when she tugs at syllables as if they were toffee, a favorite mannerism put to excellently discordant effect throughout. An incongruous guitar, like a wasp on a birthday cake, wails over the outro; Max Martin must be watching his ears. On “Writer in the Dark” she addresses obtuse listeners, of whom there are more than ever in this “narrative”-besotted social media climate, who won’t acknowledge an artist’s liberty to re-imagine biographical detritus; well, Lorde rubs their faces in the bullshit (I hope Swift is listening). “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark,” she promises. Then she pulls off a couple of tonal U-turns: voice cracking, she delivers a devastated valentine before signing it, “in our darkest hours, I stumbled on a secret power/I’ll find a way to be without you, babe.” Even sung in Lorde’s thickest warble, the peak of her vocalizing, it’s powerful stuff. If high schoolers still signed yearbooks, those are the lines I hope to see scrawled with bubbled dots for the i’s and exclamation points – a declaration of artistic independence whose consequences Lorde will realize as she gets older.
I still remain ambivalent about “Royals,” and because there’s no reason why a good song couldn’t survive – couldn’t thrive on – an ambivalent response, I’m sure I’ll keep Melodrama around in November. I like her album but she’s still got traveling to do. Having worked Pure Heroine into an old-fashioned sleeper hit just before the era of album-equivalent units, she caught so many of us off guard a redress is inevitable. I think she will record better albums. But she’s so young that I worry she won’t survive another hype cycle. In a way Lorde reminds me of semipopular figures like Chris Isaak or a Suzanne Vega: artists who got lucky once and settled a couple albums later into quieter career patterns sustained by an immoveable fan base. We don’t live in that era any more, alas; artists can’t live on streams alone. I hope she savors the euphoria of discovery animating “Green Light,” savors the kind of love celebrated in “Supercut” that songwriting turns wild and fluorescent, savors owning this pop moment. The contours of melodrama require vacillations.