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Lorde Works in Mysterious Ways

The young pop star’s ‘Melodrama’ is intimate, crushing, and bad at math. It’s also one of the best albums of the year.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Listen to Melodrama on headphones. Not because it’s one of those records that’s trying to be The Dark Side of the Moon. Do it because it sounds like Lorde is whispering wise secrets directly into your ear, and that is the point of listening to Lorde: Her music is, above all things, internal; her lyrics like a stream-of-consciousness rush that still feel a few synaptic steps from conforming to the grammar and logic of the things you’d say to another person. This is introvert pop. Listening to her music often feels like being in a small club — not in the strobe-light and bottle-service sense, but in the “we meet every Wednesday in an undisclosed location and talk about a shared subcultural passion” sense. One of the many miracles of Melodrama, her triumphant second album, is how well she’s maintained that illusion of artist-to-listener intimacy, despite having become famous enough to serve as an alternate frontperson for Nirvana.

When, in 2013, 16-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor appeared out of nowhere with “Royals,” it was easier to believe she was a hoax than to accept the possibility that she was already that good. Like Tavi Gevinson (with whom she’d eventually become close friends), Lorde was a meta-teen, with a rare and strange ability to zoom out and describe the feeling of being young while it was still happening. “Hi, I’m Ella, and I’m actually 45,” she joked in an early Vanity Fair profile, aware of the rumors. The Hairpin, famously, purchased a copy of her birth certificate from the New Zealand government to prove that she was indeed born on November 7, 1996, but truthers still persist. (“Lorde and Pharrell are the same age,” Desus Nice tweeted a few years ago, “and I have the Medieval Tapestry that proves this.”)

But kids these days grow up fast. And Ella Yelich-O’Connor, the daughter of a poet, grew up in New Zealand at a time when that didn’t feel quite so far from the rest of the world, because she could tell from everybody’s social media profiles and Spotify listener data that they were all listening to the same records as her anyway. When her self-released debut EP, The Love Club, appeared, she seemed a perfect specimen of her generation because she knew how to most meaningfully rebel against it. One of the earliest headlines read “Meet Lorde, the Teen Pop Star With a No Selfies Policy.”

That summer, “Royals” was the no. 1 song in America for nine weeks, and later won the Grammy for Song of the Year. But its impact is larger and harder to define because it completely rewrote the rules for young women making radio-friendly pop. An outsider stance was, suddenly, in. The ripple effects of Lorde’s first album, Pure Heroine, can be heard in young artists like Alessia Cara (whose debut hit was the god-this-party-is-boring anti-anthem “Here”), Daya (“No I don’t wanna sit still, look pretty,” she sang on a recent song, a semi-parodic crown atop her head in the video), and Halsey (whose be-your-own-queen single “Castle” embodied the trope so well it was featured in the latest Huntsman movie). Influence on this level is a paradox: It proved how much the industry had been craving a voice like Lorde’s, but it also added pressure on her follow-up. It can be difficult to reign when everyone else is suddenly wearing a knock-off version of your crown.

Lorde’s lyrics sometimes require a few clicks of the decoder ring, but that’s part of the in-on-the-secret fun of listening to her. “Broadcast the boom boom boom boom and make ’em all dance to it,” she murmurs during a moment of quiet in “The Louvre,” one of those hushed lines that beckons you closer. Heard one way, it sounds like a statement of purpose: Dig deep enough to make hyperpersonal music that is propelled by the breath, by the beat and ache of your own heart. But hear it another way and it turns into an impossible request, the same one that has been hounding Lorde for the last three years: Give us more music already. Make it as powerful as “Royals,” just as honest and raw and weird and deeply felt. And make sure we can all dance to it, too.

Last year Ella moved, temporarily, to New York. She found the creative refuge of solitude in uncool restaurants and a “bizarre businessman hotel — just me and conferences.” She started riding the F Train wearing big coats and sunglasses. Sometimes fans recognized her, and for them she rescinded her “no selfies” policy, as you revise some of the policies of your teen years when you reach your 20s. “In a lot of ways I felt like a little monk, drifting down into the subway, being very solitary and just thinking about the music all the time and not really socializing very much,” she told Rolling Stone. “But really I felt like I was able to lose touch with myself as a person of note, which is a really valuable thing.” Sometimes she was actively writing lyrics, but most of the time she just listened to music. Graceland and Fleetwood Mac and Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter.” (The strongest evidence yet that she is actually 45.)

There’s an age — different for every person — when a switch flips, and you suddenly understand the lyrics to all the old heartbreak songs on the radio that you internalized when you were younger. This switch flipped in Lorde some time between her two albums, when she and her longtime boyfriend parted ways. The difference between Pure Heroine and Melodrama, she has indicated, is that she went from thinking “Silver Springs” was a good song to actually understanding it.

Lorde has called Melodrama “the arc of an evening,” which is the Lorde way of saying that all its songs take place on the same night. In the hands of someone less wise and confident in her own songwriting gift, this could have gotten out of control. Skits and overly symbolic character names and an overall sense of concept-album bloat. Melodrama has none of these things. At 11 tracks it is the perfect length, which is to say that it is maybe one song too short, which means it leaves you wanting just enough to start it over at track one and listen on a hermetic loop until the goddamn end of time.

That opening song is “Green Light,” Melodrama’s spirited first single. Max Martin — the mega-successful songwriter/producer who has almost single-handedly turned modern pop songwriting into a game of what Lorde calls “melodic math” — told her she got it wrong. In a New York Times Magazine profile, Lorde said she’d played “Green Light” for Martin and he told her it was an example of “incorrect songwriting” — not “an insult,” she said, “just a statement of fact.” Bless Lorde for having the courage and clarity not to listen to him. “Green Light” has a jaunty vitality, jumping from melancholy to vengefulness (“Those rumors, they have big teeth / hope they bite you”). Its chorus reaches toward an electric transcendence. It broadcasts the boom boom boom boom, as the heart is unpredictable — and bad at math.

There are still a few songs on the album that I can imagine on the radio — though if only as an afterthought, not their sole purpose of being. “Homemade Dynamite” is a stuttering banger made of little more than woven breath. (In expressive flashes that don’t last long enough to overstay their welcome, Melodrama feels as indebted to slam poetry as it is to conventional pop.) The soaring “Supercut” already seems to be a fan favorite, and for good reason: The song pulls off a feat similar to “Royals” in speaking the language of her generation’s zeitgeist, if only to point out the ways it’s not telling us the whole truth. “In my head, I play a supercut of us,” she sings over a pulsing track worthy of Body Talk–era Robyn. This is how we formulate memories now: The relationship’s “perfect” moments captured in cropped, filtered Instagrams that we flick through after they’re over; those infernal, creepy slideshows that Facebook offers you when celebrating “eight years of friendship!” with someone you barely talk to anymore. Lorde sees this, but she seems to be grasping at something beyond it, too. There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the song when the digital pulsations pause and she lets out a little “ARGH!,” flinging off the varnished illusion for now — though it’s still there whenever she wants to wallow. “We were wild and fluorescent,” she sings, one of Melodrama’s most nakedly expressive vocals, “come home to my heart.”

The most wrenching performance, though, is “Writer in the Dark,” a macabre piano ballad that seethes as it sobs. “I am my mother’s child,” she sings, “I’ll love you till my breathing stops, I’ll love you till you call the cops on me.” This is the kind of confession an unfeeling man might cite when calling an ex-girlfriend “crazy,” but Lorde is good at turning things that the larger world maligns — say, the thoughts and observations of a teen girl — into unquestionable strengths. “In my darkest hour, I stumble on a secret power,” she wails. The power, we know from listening, is creating the song itself.

Melodrama is an achievement nearly on par with Frank Ocean’s Blonde; it’s certainly the most emotionally evocative major release since then. And though Lorde and Frank plumb different life experiences and have their own peculiar styles, they do have a shared sensibility: Both understand the necessity of removing oneself from the inessential parts of pop celebrity — retreating a bit in order to experience their emotional lives more deeply and authentically, if only to recharge for the next album. This kind of self-sufficient disconnection is exceptionally hard to do in the digital age, but it’s made them both feel like outliers, this refreshing sense that they have an interiority — a self apart from the one we see in public. “I light all the candles,” Lorde sings with a self-directed tenderness on a song called “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” “Cut flowers for all my rooms / I care for myself the way I used to care about you.”

Once, in an interview, John Cassavetes tried to explain why he made movies. “My films are expressive of a culture that has had the possibility of attaining material fulfillment while at the same time finding itself unable to accomplish the simple business of conducting human lives,” he said. “In this country, people die at 21. They die emotionally at 21, maybe younger. … My responsibility as an artist is to help people get past 21.”

Lorde makes music like this. After she released “Liability,” the devastating second single off Melodrama, I told some friends that I was jealous of people who got to be teenagers while Lorde is making music — this song would have comforted me through some rough times. But in listening to Melodrama, I have come to think Lorde’s music provides just as vital a service for people older than her: It helps them reconnect with and draw from the emotional intensity of youth. It helps us get past 21, by reawakening the formative, operatic rush of all the nights that happened before it.