“Sweetheart Psychopathic Crush”
On Lorde’s Melodrama and Pop’s New Maximalist Palette
words by maria sledmere
The narcotic pop anthems of Lorde’s debut, Pure Heroine, portrayed the suburban inertia of endless summers, drives around town, the everyday vacuum of just hanging out. Its mood was the gloaming, the monochrome fog between day and night where street-lamps flicker and moments are suspended in the “restless summer air”. Nobody knows what or if (anything) will happen next. Pure Heroine was its own brand of adolescent melancholia: a little bit Sylvia Plath’s “queer sultry summer”, a little bit small-town anomie in the age of globalisation, kitsch and glitz, the extravagant signifiers of mainstream pop and hip hop. “We’re never done with killing time / Can I kill it with you?” Lorde sings on ‘400 Lux’, her emotional restraint juxtaposed with lustfully pulsing beats; a feeling of circling round and round, reaching out for some kind of connection in the dead malls, the tennis courts and parking lots of late capitalist suburbia.
Pure Heroine felt collective, generational; understated yet momentous. Lorde’s lush, hushed vocals promised intimacy, addressed the we, but often shrouded their sentiment in jaded imagery. In a way it was a love letter to childhood, a paean to lost innocence; at times enchantingly candid (“Sharing beds like little kids”), at times written explicitly from the margins (“We live in cities you’ll never see onscreen”). It wasn’t nostalgic exactly, more a snapshot of that hullabaloo spell in the hurricane of oncoming adulthood; those moments of life made wry with tired irony, the sense that already you’re at the end of everything: “It’s a new art form showing people how little we care”.
The voice of teenage cynicism never felt so clear: “I’m kind of over being told to put my hands up in the air / So there”. Lorde coolly rejected the xeroxed gloss of the music industry, but preserved the dream of pop’s possibility. The smooth tones of her lyric fantasies, those clear dark clicks and beats, showed up in x-ray fashion the hollowness of consumer culture. Still, she offered a new mythology of disaffected youth, a generation raised online, networked to the core but very much stuck in their localised, small-town lives.
I’m reminded of the late Mark Fisher’s words on Burial’s eponymous debut: ‘an elegy for the hardcore continuum’, ‘the album is like the faded ten year-old tag of a kid whose Rave dreams have been crushed by a series of dead end jobs’. What Burial’s glitchy field-recorded samples, the deep midnight beats and clipped trills of happy hardcore angels did for deconstructing the haunted dreams of urban rave culture (the end-of-the-world parties of the 1990s), Pure Heroine did for capturing the lost hope of post-recessional millennials, bored to death with being told the world is a mess, finding comfort in their own lonely streets, in simple gestures of human connection. Lorde’s voice is the flicker of longing contained in every earnest mark of graffiti, signalling: I’m here, I exist, I’m worthy.
If Pure Heroine is the black-and-white dream of fading adolescence, its long-awaited followup, Melodrama, is a burst into colour. While her debut implicitly yearned for something more, the shiny thing, an X quantity that would break through the teenage ennui, Melodrama is about what happens after the shock, the glamorous bolt to the brain that is love and fame. Yes, it’s a highly personal breakup album; but also breakup in another sense of the word: the full-scale rearrangement of reality that happens after the partying leaves your life in shards on a stranger’s floor. Opening single ‘Green Light’ is a whirlwind turn through a relationship’s dissolution, moving from bitter separation towards something fresh and new: “I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it”. The whole album feels expressive in an unapologetic way, all myriad hues of sensation splashed on the future’s blank canvas. Once Lorde finds her momentum, the rolling piano riff, the teasingly delayed entrance of drums, we know we’re in safe hands.
Throughout Melodrama, Lorde is both inside and outside the story, completely within its emotional forcefield while cherishing that twist of the tongue-in-cheek, the exaggeratedly literary. I can’t help but think of the significance of that green light, the seductive siren with which she calls us into her bright-lit world. While Pure Heroine retained in production quality the quietude and pensiveness of its suburban setting, Melodrama was recorded in New York, its cover art (by New York artist Sam McKinniss) casting Lorde herself as a dramatic, expressionist heroine. The city’s flamboyance, its sensory rush, is reflected in the record’s tone, a serotonin hit of striking chords, quirky rhyme schemes and brooding trap-like beats which sometimes blow up into soaring choruses. I think of traffic passing all night long, the come and go of lovers, crowds, taxis. I think of Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s infamous New York novel, The Great Gatsby, writing: ‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run farther, stretch out our arms farther’. The mythology of the American Dream streams through Lorde’s experience: she was an outsider, a New Zealander, but eventually made it among the gaudy world she initially critiqued. Melodrama is what comes next, the hot tempest of self-assertion bred among landscapes of dangerous fame and neon dreams.
Whatever is meant by the green light – be it love, money, or the generalised desire that propels us towards both – it’s the beacon of hope that revels in possibility. The beauty of this ecstasy is that it isn’t simply tied to the familiar, oppressive narrative of a saccharine pop song; as the video for ‘Green Light’ suggests, it’s about taking pleasure in yourself too. Lorde thrashes around dancing on top of taxis, taking a night out alone to enjoy the music and the riotous rhythms of her own twirling body. Instead of wallowing in grief, Lorde gives us the afterlife of the love affair, the party; she channels that monochrome sadness into something fresh, synaesthetic, energetic. It feels genuinely defiant.