Merriam-Webster defines “melodrama” as “a work (such as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization.” The word itself is often used to describe the trials and tribulations of young people, especially teenagers, as a derogatory term. People see their troubles, which range from bad parties at friends’ houses to relationship trouble, as something irrelevant or unimportant. While those problems may seem dull in hindsight, there was a moment when one night in a crowded room with music blaring and drinks pouring seemed like the be-all end-all. Just ask Lorde.
The 20-year-old kiwi has made a career out of making teenage drama a narrative focus. “Royals” took the teenage angst of middle class ambition for high class success into a pop phenomenon. Even with her no.1 single and her platinum debut album Pure Heroine, Lorde ushered in a plethora of young artists singing their woes like it’s their last ballad. People like Alessia Cara, Daya, and Rachel Platten owe their exposure and attention to Ms. Ella Yelich-O’Connor(for better or worse). But while they’re carbon-copies, they don’t have Lorde’s gothic aesthetic, snarky vocal delivery, or her unique narrative. Like Carly Simon said for the late Roger Moore, “no one does it better.”
And it’s going to be hard to doubt her talent now more than ever with the release of sophomore album, Melodrama. Based on the album cover alone, the album is a brighter, more textured experience than the minimalist Pure Heroine was. Production credits are shared between Lorde and Jack Antonoff (fun., Bleachers) with a slew of others (Frank Dukes, Andrew Wyatt, Joel Little) who make the album certainly sound bigger not overbearing.
Lead single “Green Light” builds itself to a powerful crescendo, but it’s still a muted drum beat and a piano loop. “Supercut” has stronger drums and louder synthesizers shining, like a more straightforward Flume track, while the two-part “Hard Feelings/Loveless” jumps from chaotic electronic effects to boom-bap drums while Lorde skips around. The most straightforward of the tracks is the closer, “Perfect Places,” combining the use of big drums and fuzzed-out electronics to send Lorde off into the good night
But the rest of the record is an intimate affair, where Lorde sits baked in alone, cherry-colored spotlight dancing the night away. “Liability” is a gorgeous piano ballad that merely uses soft keys, while “The Louvre” starts with a simple guitar strum and only adds the electronic drum. Even when there’s multiple instrumental elements or vocal effects on songs like “Sober II (Melodrama)” or “Liability (Reprise),” it’s all restrained.
Lorde has said in interviews that the album is meant to be the story of one girl at a party, alone and looking for something. By the sound of Melodrama, it’s more of a hip house party where Lorde gets most of her feelings while hiding in the bathroom or swimming alone in the pool, the music muffled behind the closed bathroom door when she goes underwater.
While Lorde might be precocious in person, her lyrics indicate she’s still opinionated. Melodrama has elements of a breakup album (as Lorde broke-up with her longtime boyfriend recently), with “Green Light” serving as her first officially statement as a single woman: drinking at the bar, dancing in the street, and yelling about her ex’s new beau (“I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth/She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar”). The night goes well for Lorde: she meets some new friends on “Homemade Dynamite” (“A couple rebel top gun pilots/Flying with nowhere to be/Don’t know you super well/But I think that you might be the same as me”) but still can’t shake off the love she once had on “The Louvre” (“Blow all my friendships/To sit in hell with you/But we’re the greatest”). Then Lorde dims the lights for “Liability” to admit that she’s probably unhinged and needs to get out of the pool to face reality. It’s striking to hear how honest she is and how her imperfections are actually hurting her.
And that’s when she starts going downhill: she jumps to the inevitable break-up on “Hard Feelings/Loveless” (“Why even try to get right?/When you’ve outgrown a lover/The whole world knows but you/It’s time to let go of this endless summer afternoon”) and sounds quite happy about it on “Writer in the Dark” (“I let the seasons change my mind/I love it here since I’ve stopped needing you”). She still thinks about him, playing the memories back like a “Supercut,” but she’s still trying to figure things out. The last thing she says on Melodrama is “what the f**k are perfect places anyway?,” like she knows this should be a more optimistic situation than it is.
Melodrama is a revelation for Lorde, showing that she’s not only evolving as an artist but more adult than most of her contemporaries. As cinematic and atmospheric as Radiohead yet uniquely modern and youthful, Melodrama is the strongest and most complete album experience in pop music. And the best thing about it: she’s not done.
Melodrama is a pitstop, a transitional album as Lorde figures out the next step in her musical evolution. It makes her one of the most interesting artists of her era, especially considering she’s still warming up.