About two-thirds of the way into the three-minute “Homemade Dynamite” from New Zealand pop star Lorde’s second album, Melodrama, there’s a moment that captures both (a) what makes the 20-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor such a unique and special artist and (b) why chart pop seems like an odd field for this particular young visionary to have stumbled into.
I’d easily nominate Melodrama as the best pop album of the year so far, perhaps the best we’re likely to get. It’s also a better album than her first, 2013’s Pure Heroine. But in what will surely be the long arc of Lorde’s career, I’m guessing it will be an outlier, and this flash in “Homemade Dynamite” can stand for my reasons.
It’s part of a set of songs (intersecting with another cycle about personal heartbreak) that portray starry-eyed but risky young partying—this one raises the hazard of winding up “painted on the road/ red and chrome/ all the broken glass sparkling.” The central metaphor, sung in a kind of Bee Gees disco coo, is “blowin’ shit up with homemade d-d-d-dynamite.” After one of the later choruses, the backing synths and beats drop out, and Lorde sings a delicate, falling, a cappella cadence, “Now you know/ it’s really/ gonna blow”—and adds a little “pkusshh” explosion effect with just her mouth.
It’s a dry sound, without much reverb. It’s funny and even menacing in its cool understatement. It undercuts the song’s overall romantic celebration of sensual, pharmacological peer bonding with a tiny, ironic, realistic gesture. It’s what someone arriving late and sober to the party might observe if the music accidentally shut off—objectively, just some kids shouting and staggering around an apartment. However significant to their lives their current hyperstimulated states might be.
That contrast is a key to what Lorde’s trying to depict on Melodrama: how her perspective has changed in the four years since she released Pure Heroine at age 16, making her a global phenomenon with the stately, skeptical single “Royals.” Plus the general tumult of transitioning into adulthood. Unlike packs of former teen pop stars, she only casually addresses attaining mature sexuality. She’s more interested in mature personality.
But that point is also where any producer who was trying to make a pop hit would have put in a digital explosion effect instead, and a bass drop, to kick the final repeats of the chorus to a new high. Here, that never comes. The chorus just keeps floating along.
“Homemade Dynamite” is one of many songs on Melodrama that flirt with the elements of chart-pop style but refuse in various ways to consummate the relationship. That dynamic has already come up around the lead single “Green Light,” which was released in March. The chart-pop Merlin of the 21st century, Max Martin, advised Lorde and her producer Jack Antonoff that the song was built wrong, that its “melodic math” didn’t add up: The pre-chorus section downshifts the tone and modulates the key instead of ramping up to the anthemic bit that gives the song its pop appeal.
If you pay attention to the words of that pre-chorus—“I hear sounds in my mind/ Brand new sounds in my mind”—that twist seems deliberate and artful. But it’s not how hits are made. “Green Light” didn’t rise above the bottom of the top 20 on the Billboard chart, and subsequent advance tracks “Liability,” “Sober,” and “Perfect Places” so far haven’t charted at all.
Aside from “Royals,” a global No. 1, this was true of most of the songs from Pure Heroine, too. “Royals” was a fluke, left-field hit that slaked some kind of audience thirst at the peak of diva-pop hegemony for a song that broke rules and even specifically expressed anti-pop ambivalence (“We don’t care/ We’re not caught up in your love affair”). There’s a lot to say about the commercial and cultural reasons that diva-pop dominance has faded, but they don’t have much to do with Lorde. The stranger thing about the Max Martin story is how his opinion came to seem relevant to a Lorde song at all.
Given the ways that the climax of “Green Light” recalls Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love (namely “The Big Sky” or even “Running up That Hill”) and the outright Bush imitation on the chorus of “Writer in the Dark,” I’m reminded what a fluke Bush’s early “Wuthering Heights” was as a hit in the U.K. and Europe in the late 1970s. And I hope that an eccentric Commonwealth artist such as Lorde, coming from a similarly artistic family (her mother, explicitly referenced in “Writer,” is an acclaimed New Zealand poet), is more likely to follow Bush’s willful, quasi-commercial path.
But arguably that quasi-commercial zone no longer exists in 2017. Or at least, to the degree that it does, Lorde was signed to a label contract much too young (at 13) ever to access it, for instance with an independent, grassroots touring band. I’m not asking her to retreat to a bohemian hovel—videos of her performance at Bonnaroo earlier this month, for example, show how capable she is of enthralling masses. Nevertheless, this is an artist who knows where she wants to go.
In an interview with the Guardian last week, she pounded the table saying—while not at all claiming she’s there yet—that she aimed to be in the company of Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, and “Joni. Fucking. Mitchell.” Considering the talent she commands at 20, that doesn’t seem too immodest. But in this way, Melodrama seems like kind of a detour. It’s not like these are the heroes usually ticked off by Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, or even Lorde’s close friend Taylor Swift. (And trust me, I regularly lapse into reveries that Swift is about to enter her Joni phase, only to be disabused by smarter critics.)
Pure Heroine was written with those lofty ambitions in full view, and not much else: Every song was basically a teenage art manifesto. Melodrama contains a lot more life experience and more craft, with songs that teem with dramatic scenarios and storytelling. But bending to the plainspoken vernacular of pop has also domesticated Lorde’s vocabulary a little. To realize her dreams of Mitchell- or Cohen-esque genius, she might have to backtrack and recover a few of her former pretensions.
Working with Jack Antonoff (along with valuable side contributors such as beat-maker Frank Dukes and Frank Ocean producer Malay) was a healthier option for Lorde’s songwriting autonomy than signing up with Martin’s tracks-by-committee model. But there are influences through Antonoff—and Swift, who Antonoff’s worked with so closely—that seem not entirely like Lorde. The songs are never without her distinct touch, but the best tracks here, such as “The Louvre” and “Supercut,” map too directly, musically and in attitude (note the wry, half-spoken asides), to 1989 tracks like “Blank Space” and the Antonoff-produced “Out of the Woods.” Melodrama might be the most 1989-influenced major album since that juggernaut surfaced in 2014. But Lorde’s not the pop operator Swift is, and in some ways the febrile and minimalist arrangements she created with her New Zealand collaborator Joel Little gave her more expressive space, even if the songs were underdeveloped.
I should stress again that Melodrama is an extraordinary album. Every single song is worthwhile in context, and most of them are stirring and memorable. Given all the talk about the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s in its 50th-anniversary month, notice how Melodrama likewise uses late-album, stage show–style reprises—of “Sober” and “Liability”—to reinforce its loose conceptual framework. The latter even offers a kind of closing summary: “Maybe the tears and the highs we breathe/ Maybe all this is the party/ Maybe we just do it violently,” a broad forgiveness extended to everyone going through similar self-recriminations. (Admittedly, the following closer, “Perfect Places,” is no “A Day in the Life,” but what is?)
Part of Melodrama’s magic is that Lorde’s royal “we”—her “Royals” we—has opened up. On Pure Heroine, it mostly meant her New Zealand crew, her “Team,” with its inner-suburb, nonconformist sensibility, but beyond that a more extensive, underground-youth “we” available to anyone who wanted to join up. Here it can also be the “we” of a romantic pair, or of several different romantic pairs, as well as the “we” of Lorde in “Liability,” when she sings (evoking Robyn) about dancing on her own, “swaying alone/ stroking her cheek.” It can even be a meta-“we” on “Sober II (Melodrama),” perhaps the POV of her and Antonoff together: “We told you this was Melodrama.”
On Pure Heroine, Lorde didn’t write love songs, because, as she said on her Tumblr page in 2013, “[I] just haven’t found a way of doing it which is powerful and innovative.” Looking back on that sentiment in a conversation last week with Tavi Gevinson on the Rookie podcast, she laughed, “Oh right, there was a time not that long ago when … that didn’t feel like the most enduring, complex puzzle in the world!” Maturity has provided new subjects, but Lorde remains willing to serve in part as the voice of her generation—or, to quote her producer’s life partner, “a voice, of a generation.”
I particularly love the way that the instrumental coda at the end of “The Louvre” summons up the riff from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” with its masculine overtones of car engines and heedless romantic escape. Lorde’s take is a much more grounded, disillusioned account of “blow[ing] all my friendships/ to sit in hell with you”—yet also succumbs to her own version of riding through mansions of glory: “We’re the greatest/ They’ll hang us in the Louvre/ Down the back, but who cares?/ Still the Louvre.”
There lingers a trace of the anti-pop brattiness of Pure Heroine in the closing of the otherwise painfully exposed ballad “Liability” (where she rebukes her doubters by saying, “You’re all gonna watch me disappear into the sun”) and the line in “Perfect Places” when Lorde sings, “If they keep tellin’ me where to go/ I’ll blow my brains out to the radio,” which reminds me of Pure Heroine’s “I’m kind of over gettin’ told to throw my hands up in the air/ So there.” Watching her play arena shows today, one wonders whether that line ever haunts her when she’s trying to pump up a crowd.
The title Melodrama is partly teasing, as Lorde tells tales about her first big breakup (with a New Zealand photographer) and emotional group adventures. By turns it becomes more self-critical, as when she sings about “all of the things we’re taking/ ’cause we are young and we’re ashamed.” But she’s also invoking a form, what the scholar Lauren Berlant calls a segment of “women’s culture”—though Lorde is making a case for a specific young women’s variety—that suggests an “intimate public.” As Berlant puts it, it’s “a world of strangers who would be emotionally literate in each other’s experience of power, intimacy, desire, and discontent, with all that entails.”
Those forces are definitely, rousingly on display in Melodrama. But Berlant also argues there’s an exclusivity to any such intimate public—the partying teens and twentysomethings of this album are not worried about their house parties and drug experiments resulting in jail terms, and the “violence” Lorde relishes and rebukes is finally about hurt feelings and glass-smashing, not about being gunned down in the street. (Indeed, one of her erotic threats in “Writer” is “I’ll love you till you call the cops on me.”) Anytime you have someone eager to throw around the pronouns we or us, there’s a missing they and them, and those who lack Ella’s cultural privilege—as much as the more deserving olds and normals—are left out of Lorde’s narrative here.
It’s one of the virtues of pop that it has a way of juxtaposing, for instance, Katy Perry and Rihanna as peers and equals. Lorde hasn’t much to say about that. But when she reduces her world down to a microcosmic, subjective, internal explosion, that’s something every human can understand.