Alternative pop artist and former teen sensation Lorde drops her sophomore studio album, nearly 4 years removed from winning a Grammy at the age of 16 for “Royals”. The extensive time Lorde has put into perfecting this album has been well-documented, and the resulting concept album of sorts, chronicling the story of a single house party, can certainly reside in the same area as her stellar debut, Pure Heroine.
Lorde’s transition to adulthood is reflected in her lyrical themes, and the accompanying rapid accumulation of interpersonal relationships and a growing sense of place in a frequently depressing world are brought out here by one of the strongest songwriters in the game. While the project does take a few experimental risks that don’t pan out exactly as planned, this is another very strong, ambitious and beautifully written effort from the rising star.
The project opens with single “Green Light”, a song which Max Martin, who knows a thing or two about songwriting, deemed “incorrect songwriting”. He was likely referring to the abrupt shift as the song transitions into its chorus. This should only tell you about the fearless decisions Lorde and her songwriting and production partner Jack Antonoff (fun., Bleachers) have in store for the rest of the project. Melodrama is pop music, to be sure, but it’s a dark, twisted and constantly surprising take on it.
Many of these tracks are anchored by nearly whispered and rapid-fire vocals from Lorde over a variety of instrumentals – the muffled and pulsating synths on tracks like “Homemade Dynamite”, horns on “Sober”, “Writer in the Dark” sounding like a Kate Bush song, or bare piano on “Liability”. Still, Lorde’s personality is so distinct that the project remains incredibly cohesive. Some pretty great artists appear for additional production credits too, including Frank Ocean collaborators Frank Dukes and Malay, and future-bass DJ Flume.
Lorde’s greatest asset is her songwriting, and despite her many other strengths, it’s not even close. She has now perfectly captured exactly what it is like to be both 16 and 20 years old. There’s something special about hearing a young pop artist, venturing even closer to a radio sound than before, delivering complex and meaningful lyrics that end up being this powerful. Lorde introduced herself to us by criticizing the recycled themes of popular music, and she continues her quest to find meaning in the tumultuous experience of youth here. This culminates in excellent closer “Perfect Places”, where she smacks the romanticized images of teenage partying to the ground.
Lorde extends this strength in songwriting to the melodies that she and Antonoff create. These are two musicians who both really know their way around a chorus. Just try to get that “Homemade Dynamite” hook out of your head – that’s some pop magic. The most enticing thing about Lorde, and what makes her a truly special artist, is her capability to simultaneously embrace the finer sciences of crafting a pop song that fills a dancefloor, all the while analyzing the societal implications of doing just that.
Lorde’s voice is very distinct, and it helps many of her narratives become more personalized and believable. It is much lower than most female voices in pop music, verging on a menacing whisper at its lowest. Packed with emotion and frequently weary of the ways of the world, it delivers some pretty heavy stuff with just the right cadence. “Writer in the Dark” sees her master her instrument in a way we haven’t seen before, contrasting the anger and cynicism of her matter-of-fact lower register with the passion and vulnerability of her upper register.
“Liability”, as well, is still not only the album’s best, but an early contender for my favourite song of the year for many of the above reasons. Little more than a brief piano loop, Lorde hits her emotional peak with her most beautifully written melody yet as she takes a look at herself in the wake of a breakup, cursing herself for the burdens her fame and her personality places on her partners.
Lorde takes aim at a Frank Ocean-style lyrical exercise in turning the pedantic into the poignant here, making a house party sound like a magical, transcendent experience on who you are as a person. She succeeds for the most part, but this has always proven to be a very difficult task for quite a few artists. Luckily, most of the lesser-faring experimental ideas all congregate on a single track, “The Louvre”. Featuring sparse instrumentation and a spoken hook, there just isn’t really enough here.
Her reprises of two songs – an Antonoff favourite tactic – is a little excessive as well, but in the context of the story, they are absolutely necessary. And after all, Lorde is a storyteller above all else.
Lorde takes the refreshing perspective on the world she offered in Pure Heroine, and imbues it with an elevated sense of ambitious artistic vision. Even if it isn’t as concise as her debut, it’s a lot more impressive that she pulled this one off to a level of quality this high. This just might be a legendary career.
Favourite Tracks: Liability, Homemade Dynamite, Perfect Places, Writer in the Dark, Green Light
Least Favourite Track: The Louvre