Melodramas deal with exaggerated conflicts and emotions, opting for the extremity of moods over detailed and subtle characterization. Historically, the melo- part of melodrama meant melody, providing orchestral accompaniments to stories dealing with romantic or sensational topics. By extension, there has always been an element of artifice to art, in the way it heightens and distills the essential pieces of experience in a deliberate fashion. Even the rawest and barest of art is crafted with the precision of its creator. And ideally, the creator is what takes center stage. Through all the veneers of songs, shots and brush strokes, we should see the extension of an individual perspective and all the universalities it may inform. Art takes the amorphous messiness of life and turns it into something perfect and beautiful.
Lorde understands this better than any pop artist at the moment. Back in 2013, riding off the success of “Royals,” she arrived with a fully realized sound and perspective on her debut album Pure Heroine, standing in stark contrast with the sugar-coated glitz and glamor that characterized most of Obama-era pop music. Lorde’s lyricism aimed for a sort of jaded weariness that still sounded earnest for a 16-year-old teenage girl while her instrumentals captured a level of skeletal grittiness unfound in the Max Martin Bible of “correct songwriting.” Pop audiences clearly responded to this fresh sense of authenticity, launching Lorde from niche appreciation to stardom.
It’s difficult to say if Lorde necessarily initiated a sea change within female-oriented pop music, but she definitely foresaw one. In the five years since Pure Heroine’s release, the bubblegum, overtly sexual attitudes of the early aughts has become entirely unrecognizable. Grappling with the growing prominence of hip-hop and EDM on the charts, artists have either embraced newer sounds or returned to their folkier roots. Lana Del Rey, with her melancholic nostalgia and hallucinatory personality, used to confound the industry. Now she leads it. Digital streaming upstarts Tove Lo and Halsey fed directly into the downtrodden “alternative” pop that Lorde helped to inspire, dragging pop’s primary focus towards the darker edges of decadence and adolescent angst. On the other hand, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus have ditched the outlandish mannerisms and costumes for earthier acoustic ballads.
What all of these changes signify, more than anything, is that pop audiences’ desire for authenticity was not a fleeting fad. Lorde had become a lasting reference point and the tropes that initially made her endearing were under threat of becoming tired.
This was the world of pop that Lorde returned to last year when she released her second studio album Melodrama. She was no longer an outsider. There were so many ways her sophomore effort could have turned into a slump. She could have given into the marimba-driven nonsense of so many contemporary pop hits. She could have repeated the winning formula of Pure Heroine. She could have failed to observe and understand the new pains that come with maturity. But Lorde was too clever to make any of those mistakes. Melodrama is nothing short of a triumph for the very reason that she has found power and reliance in herself.
Melodrama is a record brimming with colors and textures, shifting away from the disillusionment found in the spacious trip-pop of Pure Heroine. As Lorde creeps into adulthood, she is realizing that maturity is messier than dejected teenage angst, and these newer songs reflect a person ready to confront the whole spectrum of emotions life will throw at you. Bringing in in-vogue producer Jack Antonoff of Fun. and Bleachers fame, Lorde injects Melodrama with the cathartic theatricality of new wave, finding a newfound pulse within her sound. Now, Antonoff is very hit-or-miss. As a solo act and musician, he has made some of the most offensively trite “indie” tunes I have ever heard. More a technician than an architect, Antonoff brings out the best of his tendencies when bouncing ideas off of a strong personality with a strong vision—St. Vincent, Carly Rae Jepsen, Grimes and now Lorde—so that they can be structured into songs that don’t suffer from hollow pomposity.
That’s all that Antonoff really is: an assistant in fleshing out technical details. Melodrama belongs to Lorde. By taking her time to live with the album, her changes as a person, as an artist and as a cultural figure germinated within the seams of every track, providing a bedrock for the album’s multitude of experiments and hooks. And by creating this constant, the album’s sonic accomplishments feel sleek, modern and inventive without having to be attached to a contemporary zeitgeist.
There’s just so many downright cool moments on this album. Take the transition in album centerpiece “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” where walls of blaring industrial distortion, not unlike the most brazen of shoegaze bands, are layered and crunched until a foggy dance beat slowly emerges victorious. It’s a moment that feels distinctly subversive and aggressive yet natural and earned. Or maybe consider the horn section refrains on “Sober” or the Kate Bush-esque multi-tracked falsetto that adorns the chorus on “Writer in the Dark.” Or, how about the entirety of “The Louvre,” easily the best song Lorde has ever committed to tape. Structurally and instrumentally, the track resembles nothing I’ve heard on pop radio from the past 20 years. Bookended by passages of crisp, unadorned electric guitar, the song broods in total darkness. It oscillates between playful verses and moody choruses, developing a cloud of atmosphere that envelopes and collapses as it pleases.
But it all still works. As much as Lorde gives herself free creative reign, she still finds power within the limitations of pop syntax. Pop music as a concept is the succinct structuring of musical ideas and emotions into tight three to four minute songs. Lorde takes this structure and digs deep into each of its corners, creating songs that are simultaneously immediate and nuanced. This synthesis of seemingly disparate ideas is heard most powerfully on “Supercut,” the album’s emotional peak. For its first half, the song charges forward relentlessly with buoyant piano chords, buzzing synths, a boom clap rhythmic anchor and arena rock vocal harmonies from Lorde. Then, everything drains out of the mix, leaving Lorde alone with her feelings. The track slowly tries to build itself back up before giving way to a dreamy, ambient outro. It is the height of the party and the lonely walk back home all in one song, one place, one moment.
With Melodrama, Lorde has changed the narrative from “we” to “I.” By honing in on her individual perspective and experiences, she is becoming a generational icon on her own terms. She has reclaimed the word melodrama as a tool to describe the dizzying confusions of growing up, of experiencing your first heartbreak, of feeling lonely in a large, new city. Through Melodrama, Lorde wants us to appreciate the fullness of our emotions and to elevate everyday occurrences into cinematic epics, so that they may be understood. The only time Lorde ever speaks of the larger “we” is on closing track “Perfect Places.” “What the fuck are perfect places, anyway?” she proclaims. She’s not wrong. Life is far too chaotic to have perfect places, perfect moments or perfect people. Art is the only place where any semblance of perfection exists. And like all great art, I have found a perfect place in Melodrama. A