There’s a funny thing that sometimes happens to a single artist within a certain genre. It’s when someone comes along with a relatively original sound, but manages to inspire a bunch of vastly inferior copycats that ride on their coattails. I call it the ‘Van Halen effect’. Van Halen were a band that were pretty unique in their formative years, but their success ended up spawning an enormous swath of really really shitty hair metal bands in the subsequent decade. While you can’t blame them for the bad music that other people made, it still can be traced to them.
This definitely happened with Lorde, in my opinion. When she originally showed up a few years back, it was refreshing to see an artist that purposefully deconstructed and made fun of the type of blingy pop clichés that had reached the point of saturation by that point. I was a fan, although I felt like her first album Pure Heroine fell a little short outside its singles, but I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt; very few artists really nail it on the first album. But in the time between her first album and this new one, Melodrama, every hack imaginable has jumped on the bandwagon of what Lorde started, and each of them has had their fair share of insufferable Top 40 hits. These usually consist mostly of faux-deep ponderings of the same set of millennial hang ups that make up the typical nineteen year old’s Twitter posts.
All of this is part of the reason why I was so relieved when new songs from Lorde started to be drip fed to the public over the last few months. And, in the context of this new album, I feel like she seems to be deconstructing the type of cringey ‘young-people blues’ that I was just describing, and, in many ways, the Melodrama seems to be about breaking out of that. The title of the record itself seems to be a bit of an admission that all of this may be a bit overblown. But even through all of this borderline meta over analyzation, I think this album is great.
Above anything else, the thing that makes Lorde better than all those other wannabe indie pop idols is that she is simply a much better songwriter than the likes of Alessia Cara and Halsey. Lorde has a stronger poise and a finer lyrical touch than her peers, who may as well be writing down their lyrics with a jackhammer for all their lack of any nuance.
There were several songs released prior to the rest of the album, including the energetic “Green Light” and the astonishingly sullen piano ballad “Liability”. Overall, the album leans towards the feel of the latter track in terms of vibe. While there are a couple of really upbeat tracks that you might hear in a club, I feel like the best parts of this album are where she just lets the mood set in.
And this is an extremely moody album. A lot of the production sort of just congeals into a soup of synth ambience and some admittedly strange sounding samples. In particular, the harsh feedback and borderline industrial instrumental section on “Hard Feelings/Loveless” is a pretty bold move for a pop album. It almost sounds like something you’d hear on a St. Vincent project. While some may criticize it for a lack of energy, I think it does pretty well in capturing the malaise of the “quarter life crisis” that pop music in 2017 is obsessed with. But the real focus with an album like this is the vocal performance. I don’t think Lorde has any interest in being a vocal powerhouse like Adele, but she does find a surprising amount of versatility in her usual croony style. She has a good sense of what type of vocal approach fits with the song she’s on, as opposed to showing off the virtuosity of her singing. Another small thing that I really liked was that there are quite a few instances of clever vocal layering and sort bursts of effects that give some extra texture to the songs. The vocoder under the lead vocal in “Liability (Reprise)” in particular is a really nice touch.
Lorde really made an effort here to write an album as opposed to a collection of pop singles. The stylistic continuity of the record as a whole is really strong without getting monotonous, which is a real tightrope to walk. There are actual musical segues and connections between songs, moments to let songs wind down before starting the next. One of my favorite of these is an instrumental coda to “The Louvre”, where the track breaks down to an ambient synthbed and a deliciously eighties sounding guitar break.
Melodrama was an album that I was cautiously looking forward to, as I felt like Lorde still had a ways to go before becoming a truly great artist. But with this, I feel like she really nailed it. What we have here is a legitimately smart pop album that doesn’t compromise any catchiness for its intelligence, which is quite an accomplishment if you really think about how many artists are unable to strike that balance.