Long-read:

“Sweetheart Psychopathic Crush”

On Lorde’s Melodrama and Pop’s New Maximalist Palette

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words by maria sledmere

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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.

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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.

If Pure Heroine was the still-point in a turning world, the time of the gloaming and folding hope, Melodrama is the chaos of a house party, the wee hours of a Night Out tumbling with drama, youthful zeal and a sort of fury. The debut’s weariness is traded for an embrace of energy, the dynamite rumbles of desire; you can definitely trace parallels with Lana Del Rey’s career trajectory from the melancholy, death-obsessed breakthrough Born to Die to the uplifting promise of Lust for Life. Despite the joy, the frenzy of being ‘psycho hot’ and drunk on a maximalist sense of flying through party after party, Melodrama tracks the cyclonic moods of its heroine from rough to smooth, drunk to coldly sober. There’s a duality to all its experience that feels completely real.

Where Pure Heroine was all fluttering holograms and impressionistic rendering, Melodrama is hyper-saturation, emotion at full pelt, all thick impasto swirls of colour calling towards dawn. It almost recalls the confessional excess of a Pete Wentz lyric, a glossy Fall Out Boy track—but this isn’t emo. Lorde never falls into that masturbatory, masculine trap of complete self-deprecation. She picks herself up, dusts off the dirt and the sorrow and drugs, dances alone until the world feels straight and she can emerge as a “forest fire” once again. There’s a self-awareness on songs like ‘Liability’ that makes the candour feel earned; a preservation of teenage fantasy that allows her to go on in the face of failed relationships: “Play at romance, we slow dance / In the living room, but all that a stranger would see / Is one girl swaying alone”. This is the deceptively simple feminist self-care that pop’s been waiting for.

Melodrama is a breakup album, but not in the typical pop formula: the self-pitying lament or obnoxiously ex-bating diary exposé. Instead, it offers a way through the pain without simply hating on others and blaming the universe. She tracks the dizzying ‘Supercut’ of love’s memory through songs that glister with exhilaration: “Well summer slipped us / underneath her tongue / Our days and nights are perfumed with obsession”, she sings on ‘The Louvre’. Experience is a drug for the taking, and Lorde filters it through the hallucinatory narratives of ersatz passion the media feeds us daily: “perfumed with obsession” feels like a sardonic lift from a fashion house fragrance ad. Although every tale feels dark, raw and genuine, it’s shadowed by that familiar Lordean irony, a disillusionment with the privileged lifestyle that first brought on the lust, the rush.

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In our cynical times, Melodrama represents an emergent generational turn towards honesty, earnest expression and hope without losing that vital self-awareness that keeps you grounded in the contradictions of contemporary experience. Lorde admits to sometimes being that bad girl, tangled in damaged romance – “Blow all my friendships to sit in hell with you” – but then reflects on how desire, that “sweetheart psychopathic crush” with all its addictive mythology, will probably end up static and vacuous as Gatsby’s beautiful but useless collection of colourful shirts, a dazzling exhibit that finds itself “down the back” of the Louvre. What matters isn’t the dusted remains of the affair, but the spirit that Lorde herself gleans from the experience: the broadcasted dynamite booms, the raw material for another dance. Creation from destruction; it’s a properly cathartic way out of heartbreak that nevertheless fades out with the unaffected sorrow of clean and twanging eighties guitars. Often the magic happens when Lorde lets her musical strokes do the talking; whether the luxuriously melancholic strings that open ‘Sober II (Melodrama)’, the paradisal beats and sweet harmonies of ‘Hard Feelings/Loveless’, or the euphoric chorus on ‘Perfect Places’.

Saying this is an album of two halves – the party and its afterlife – isn’t quite accurate; less a dully linear narrative, it’s a constant chiaroscuro of passion and sadness, hedonism and pale restraint. The music itself reflects this: mellow and reflective moments such as ‘Liability’ and ‘Writer in the Dark’ are balanced alongside a romantic and theatrical New Wave atmosphere that elsewhere drags us through the picaresque adventures of this bright young woman in her brave new world. She claims her right to debauchery while maintaining a wry awareness of this ruinous lifestyle: “Might get your friend to drive, but he can hardly see / We’ll end up painted on the road / Red and chrome / All the broken glass sparkling / I guess we’re partying”. From the fun and the rubble, the coruscating chrome, what’s reflected back is a robust sense of self that nonetheless shimmers at the edges. Lorde gives us a tantalising glimpse into her wayward psyche (“Will you sway with me? / Go astray with me?”), peppers her lyrics with familiar teenage tags and fizzing sarcasm (“awesome, right?”), but constantly undercuts the full-flushed dreams with cold tones, the inevitable flip-side: “But what will we do when we’re sober?”.

A drunk night can dazzle us with fevers and mirrors (the Bright Eyes reference here being deliberate; note that Conor Oberst admits himself a Lorde fan), but it’s our own blank reflections we’re left with in the morning, the light on the glass that challenges us to make colour of the day. Narrative is in our power. Not many musicians could take these familiar themes and blast out the residue trace of cliché, but Lorde has a habit of sweeping you up in her eccentric storm. Melodrama is the result of all that pent-up expression, and in its breathless, disco-drenched swirls you might just find one of the best minds of our generation; only she’s not starving, hysterical naked, she’s both coolly detached and fused with the flames, a figure whose strength comes from admitting her weakness. The subtle emotional shades and musical frequencies of her sophomore record provide a rich palette for pop music to come, but it’s difficult to think of any musician in her position who could wield the brush quite like Lorde does.

‘Melodrama’ is out now, via Republic Records

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https://lorde.co.nz

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