When Lorde first skyrocketed to fame in the halcyon days of 2013 with the radio-juggernaut that was “Royals,” one distinct query would accompany most all discussions of her work: how old is this girl? The answer, at the time, was unbelievably, 16. The artist born as Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor was not even able to vote in her native New Zealand when her debut single spent a whopping nine weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100, an impressive feat at an age when most people are too busy learning how to smoke weed instead of kicking off a new movement in pop music.
Now Lorde is 20, and to mark her exit from her teenage years she has blessed us with her second full-length, Melodrama. To call it an artistic growth would be a disservice to just how breezily self-assured it is; the album is a remarkable creative leap, sure, but it is most importantly an astonishingly coherent and profound dissertation on the delirious roller-coaster of being a teenager, all from someone who, up until a few months ago, still was one.
Using a loose thematic through line of a house party over the course of a single night, Melodrama covers a wide range of intense emotions without ever once falling victim to, well, melodrama. Though lead single and opening track “Green Light” comes awfully close. Lorde self-described the track as “that drunk girl at the party dancing around crying about her ex-boyfriend who everyone thinks is a mess,” an apt metaphor for the simultaneous feelings of melancholy and wild, joyous abandon that permeate its chorus.
“Green Light” is an energetic, fun start to the record, but it does little to convey the supremely confident pop instincts just around the corner. “Sober” and “Homemade Dynamite,” which immediately follow, are both natural next-steps from the minimal, beat-driven (nay, trip-hoppy) songs that populated her debut Pure Heroine. Tracks like these two display an ear for production far more mature and experimental than we’ve heard in her previous work; the horns that chase after each line of the chorus on “Sober” are a welcome addition to Lorde’s sonic palette, while the meandering, percussive beat that lopes around the corners of “Homemade Dynamite” lures the ear in just far enough to catch it unaware when that massive, staccato hook of a chorus arrives.
Her voice has also become an instrument Lorde feels comfortable tinkering with this time around. The surreal, breathy coo that inhabits “Writer in the Dark” is a register of her range we have never been privy too before, while the singalong, lighters-in-the-air choruses of “Green Light” and album-closer “Perfect Places” manage to be excitable without being irritable. Yet those tracks belie the extreme strength of a song like “Liability,” a ballad that only features voice and piano. It is the most vulnerable she has allowed herself to be, and it works beautifully.
Of course this pales in comparison to the vulnerability of her own identity put on such poetic display through every moment of this record. All of us remember the singular teenage heartbreak that felt like the end of the world, but hardly any of us have the acute, self-critical eye that Lorde has in assessing the aftermath. “I am your sweetheart psychopathic crush,” she sings on the sweeping, guitar-clipped “The Louvre,” before reevaluating in the next verse that “I’m just the sucker who let you fill her mind.”
The mid-album transition piece “Hard Feelings/Loveless” is another romantic dissection that feels astonishingly self-aware for being a saga of first love. “When you’ve outgrown a lover, the whole world knows but you,” she sings with a weariness far beyond her years. “It’s time to let go of this endless summer afternoon.”
But in a record full of piercing statements on the teenage experience, Lorde saves her best for last. “Perfect Places,” among the more radio-ready singles to be found on Melodrama, concerns the end of her house party album arc. It is a song that questions the notion of the house party itself, that great mythic liberator of the adolescent spirit. “All the nights spent off our faces / Trying to find these perfect places / What the fuck are perfect places anyway?” she asks, the last line fading to a whisper as the song closes out.
Those who enjoyed Lorde’s Pure Heroine will find plenty to love here, even if Melodrama doesn’t have the same sort of easy-spot hits of a track like “Royals.” But its status as the best pop record of 2017 thus far is one cemented in the notion that Lorde, more than any other artist of her generation, is an uncannily gifted storyteller, particularly when it comes to the fickle matters of the young heart.
For more of our reviews, get our take on Katy Perry’s full-length ‘Witness’ right here.