“Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?”
That’s what Lorde asked in the first line of Pure Heroine, the 2013 album that earned the New Zealand teen Ella Yelich-O’Connor global superstardom and the admiration of David Bowie. The question signaled not only Lorde’s appealing nonconformity but that Lorde herself knew, from the start, that her appeal would be nonconformity. Using skeletal beats and a creaky-breathy way with words, she critiqued pop culture’s materialism—“Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece”—and worship of “white-teeth teens.” “It’s a new art form showing people how little we care,” she sneered, and with ’90s rock disaffection long in the rearview mirror, it really did feel new.
Four years later, she and her shtick have migrated from outsider to insider. The charts are littered with singers that not only sound like Lorde but insist on their beyond-it-all cool in much the same way she did. Alessia Cara’s 2015 hit “Here” epitomized the soundalikes, with a young singer sighing from amid a bustling party about how she’d rather be back home, nursing her anti-social soul. How might Lorde continue to stand out when the rest of the culture has caught up? Is it still interesting for her to continually announce her uniqueness when her generation has—fairly or not—become synonymous with thepractice of, well, announcing one’s own uniqueness?
The most surprising thing about Melodrama, her long-awaited sophomore album, is how thoroughly it ditches Lorde’s jadedness and instead stakes her claim to individuality on the intensity of her emotions. “We pretend we don’t care, but we care,” she sings on “Sober,” seeming to mock the “new art form” she once sang about. Melodrama’s loose conceit is a night at a house party, with highs of drunken fun and hookups and with lows of drunken introspection and breakups: standard pop fare, really. The distinguishing factor, she seems to say, is her tragic vibrancy—relationships keep disintegrating because she is a “liability,” as she sings on the ballad of the same name and its later reprise.
Her songs are still often built off syncopated stomping grooves, halfway between a hip-hop beat and “We Will Rock You.” But thanks in part to the producer Jack Antonoff—the ’80s obsessive behind the band Fun and some of Taylor Swift’s 1989—the color palette is more diverse and the dynamic range is bigger, more accommodating of sentimentality. “Green Light,” the lead single, made a statement with sharp turns into house music and walloping eruptions of arena rock. Other highlights include “Sober,” whose Latin shimmying gives way to gothic choruses; “The Louvre,” a dreamily strummed tribute to Echo & the Bunnymen; and “Supercut,” a nostalgic rave poised to be Lorde’s next hit. None of them cohere as undeniable, gemlike pop achievements in the way “Royals” did. But few songs ever will.
Lorde’s lyrics can at times seem belabored, and her essay in the liner notes—“I hope you listen for every breath and broken heartstring”—sets the template for some of the album’s more precious lines: “We were wild and fluorescent, come home to my heart,” she sings at one point, sounding a bit like any pop star on autopilot. But she still turns out more killer phrases than dead ones. The second verse of “Homemade Dynamite” is a grim, sardonic fantasy of a drunk-driving accident—“We’ll end up painted on the road / Red and chrome / All the broken glass sparkling / I guess we’re partying.” And the Phil Collins-esque opening of “Hard Feelings/Loveless” paints a touching scene of her sitting in a car with a beau on the verge of splitting. “I guess I should go,” she concludes.
Lines like those show how Lorde excels at creating vignettes within songs, mini-moments that risk dampening a track’s propulsion but end up making the big picture more vivid. On the ravishing “The Louvre,” she has a jokey spoken aside about how she and her squeeze are going to have their portraits displayed in Paris—“down the back, but who cares? Still the Louvre.” Amid the whirling high of “Supercut,” the music cuts out for a moment of quiet reflection before the final swell. The willingness to hit “pause” fits with the album’s theme of sorting through one’s own experiences for mementos, rendering memory only as a series of highs and lows.
At times, that mode of filtering and organizing the past can seem a bit too pat in the era of endless Instagram scrolling. Ditto for Lorde’s theatrical tellings of dangerous, doomed love affairs. But whenever it seems she’s exhausted all possible ways of labeling herself a “sweetheart psychopathic crush,” she hits on a crackling new coinage or sound. Take “Writer in the Dark,” a wonderful nightmare of a piano piece in which she multiplies into a brood of falsetto demons warning, “I’ll love you till my breathing stops / I’ll love you ‘til you call the cops on me.” She’s saying something that’s been said many times before in song, but she’s still saying it more interestingly than most people.