With music as minimalist and monochrome as its artwork, taken out of context, Pure Heroine, the breakout record from New Zealand artist Lorde, appeared an unlikely contender for the bellwether of the future of mainstream pop music. Whilst not a revolutionary opus in every feasible fashion, the sixteen-year-old songstress’ debut nevertheless subverted industry tropes in a way that made it difficult to pigeonhole, leading to many critics both under- and overanalysing the album. If one thing was for certain, however, it was the fact that Pure Heroine translated a level of self-awareness and insight into a teenager’s perspective on popular culture that many of mainstream music’s most lauded luminaries would be hard-pressed to match. Likewise, the delicate, sparse timbre of the album played perfectly to its thematic framing, fortifying Lorde’s profound ruminations on otherwise commonplace teen pop topics of romantic struggles, social anxiety and issues of self-perception with some equally meditative music that was often as subtle as it was sublime. With such a strong conceptual framework established by her first album, and in a way that is so hard to completely contextualise, Lorde impressively managed to maintain mainstream appeal, despite, in many regards, being more evocative of indie and avant-garde pop artists like Björk than of anyone else dominating the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. This duality of Lorde’s musical identity is even more evident on her newest endeavour, Melodrama, but in an almost contradictory fashion at times. As comparing their cover art would suggest, Melodrama, compared to Pure Heroine, features more splashes of colour in its instrumentation, in the form of experimental embellishments, courtesy not solely of the songwriting and production credits from fun.’s Jack Antonoff, but of the contributions from record producers as diverse as Jean-Benoît Dunckel of legendary downtempo duo Air to the flagship of future bass, Flume. Unlike its predecessor, however, many of the dashes of experimentation from Melodrama can feel somewhat heavy-handed at times, and in a way that doesn’t play to the strengths of the album’s exploration of self-imposed solitude and the breakdown of romantic relationships as cogently as Pure Heroine. Although Melodrama isn’t as structurally cohesive as it could be, it has more than its fair share of compelling moments, with the record’s personal potency being conveyed more through individual instances of emotional urgency than as intrinsically interlaced within its overarching concept. Whilst Lorde certainly has the room to relay her reflections on romance, rejection and reclusiveness on Melodrama — at the best of times, in as captivating and critical a manner as on Pure Heroine — this is nonetheless limited to specific songs, rather than being a constant across the album.
With Lorde citing Paul Simon’s Graceland, as well as the works of many classic soft rock and adult contemporary acts, as the salient sources of stylistic inspiration for the piano-driven compositional approach utilised across much of Melodrama, many of the album’s most impressive moments are so admirable directly as a result of the artistic maturation displayed through the singer’s heightened scope as a performer. The hushed, piano-based balladry of Liability, for instance, may conform to the minimalist philosophy of Pure Heroine, albeit in a rather different manner, but it reaches a level of intimacy that Lorde may have previously conveyed through her lyrical capabilities, but never through a performance as palpably pained as on this track. Just as Liability is a striking stylistic change of pace for Lorde, it acts as the prime platform for the musician to make a similarly arresting tone shift on a lyrical basis, brooding over her position as a pop icon within the context of a break-up story that sees Lorde place self-reliance and self-destruction side by side, to the point where the line between them is somewhat hazy. In fact, this sense of controlled confusion recurs rather frequently across Melodrama, as Lorde grapples with her first major case of heartbreak, with the listener being guided through her initial efforts of dealing with this, thus being given a better understanding of just how messy these attempts have been at times. Despite their vastly different instrumental tones, the opening song and lead single from the record, Green Light, is framed markedly similarly to Liability, even to the point where both songs, in their very first lines, set the scene with Lorde being depicted in a car. I must admit, despite being underwhelmed by Green Light as a single, seeing it as a slight departure from what made Lorde such an interesting pop artist on Pure Heroine, it is a song that benefits greatly from the broader context of the rest of the record, both lyrically and musically. Whilst the substitution of the song’s initial piano balladry for an uptempo, dance pop groove at first struck me as conflicting with the heartbroken lyrical overtones, understanding Melodrama as a story of a break-up at a house party, and hearing the artist’s own explanation of the song as an anthem of sorts for the drunk, lovesick girl, dancing and crying at the same time at said party, makes so much sense that it feels as if it should have been more obvious from the onset. With the premise of the song cleared up, it’s a lot easier to get into the buoyant piano lines, booming tom-tom fills and thick guitar leads that build up and elevate the already lofty vocal melodies to their epic heights. With the more conventional EDM attitude employed on songs such as Green Light balanced by the same melodically-orientated, minimal pop songcraft of Pure Heroine on cuts like Hard Feelings/Loveless, Lorde can undoubtedly be given a great deal of credit for how effectively the best moments on Melodrama see the artist deftly broaden her sonic palette and retain the dramatic quality that has attracted so many people to her music.
This being said, the expanded scope of Melodrama isn’t always integrated into Lorde’s pre-established aesthetic as naturally and seamlessly as the aforementioned examples, with there being a handful of notable instances in which Antonoff et al. attempt some ambitious production quirks that don’t pay off, or in which they seemingly bid to recapture the thin, minimalist beauty of Pure Heroine, but miss the mark in some way or another. In sharing similar structural themes to Green Light, the shortcomings of The Louvre are notably more prominent as a result, especially given that some of them pertain to the song’s structure. With Lorde’s cascading vocal melody that leads into the hook hinting towards some kind of swell in the instrumentation, the subversion of this for a muted, minimal EDM beat that completely dissipates all the built-up tension seems to have been intended to poke at pop’s typical tropes, much in the vein of producers like Cashmere Cat. However, when this instrumental bait-and-switch sees the anthemic drop that was alluded to substituted for a relatively generic EDM rise that lasts for the entirety of the chorus, the potency of this stylistic statement is lost for what, ultimately, ends up being a rather frustrating production choice, particularly with much of the track’s runtime being dedicated to this motif. Ultimately, this comes across as Antonoff, Flume and the other producers who worked on the cut attempting to reference the stark minimalism of Pure Heroine, but in somewhat of a superficial fashion, which, rather ironically, arguably works against Lorde’s principles as a pop artist. In contrast, the synthetic horns that are worked into Sober seem to be striving for a brighter timbre that feels out of place on a Lorde record that, in numerous ways, conforms to the bleak, cold and monochrome atmosphere of Pure Heroine. Similarly, Supercut, despite the striking success with which it toys with the multi-tracked vocals, plays to the same territory that I initially interpreted Green Light as playing towards, in that it evokes a simple synthpop sound to which many would consider Lorde’s music a refreshing alternative. Also, Antonoff’s influence on the instrumental arrangement was perhaps a bit too overbearing, in that the song sounds almost like a leftover from the recent album from Bleachers, Antonoff’s current songwriting pseudonym. Ultimately, it’s not as if these moments are bad or even below par in terms of quality for what one would expect from the singer, rather they share a common theme of trying to work ideas into Lorde’s sound that are arguably not suited to the style and associated persona of the artist established on her debut album, occasionally edging too close to a feeling of contrivance that contradicts Lorde’s artistic stance against artificiality.
Melodrama undoubtedly lives up to its title, for better or for worse. For the most part, however, it is very much for the better, with Lorde capturing a similar sense of self-awareness, insight and honesty in her lyricism across the tracklisting as that featured on Pure Heroine, despite being applied to a considerably more emotionally downtrodden subject matter. With the record’s lyrical tone shift being matched with a stylistic change of pace and an overall expansion of Lorde’s sound, the most successful moments from Melodrama translate an emotive pertinence that Pure Heroine didn’t necessarily retain the sonic reach to accomplish, which is epitomised by the restrained timbre of Liability that allows the musician to put her personal life on display in a way that she has yet to achieve so openly in the past. Unfortunately, with the increased stylistic breadth of Melodrama comes some questionable production choices that would be easier to overlook if they didn’t detract from the thematic framing of the album, as they occasionally do. The fact that Lorde’s capacity as a lyricist, a performer and an artist still shines through, even during such moments, however, is exceptionally impressive, and bodes well for her ability to accommodate for even greater sonic development in the future. In the meantime, although Melodrama falls short of the status of a defining statement, it works to further Lorde’s artistry in a way that will surely continue to see the singer mature not solely as a lyricist and storyteller, but across the board.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10