Monday, September 30, 2013

album review: 'pure heroine' by lorde

About a year ago, a critic that I like made an interesting statement regarding the evolution of the pop charts. He commented that due to the success of 'Call Me Maybe' by Carly Rae Jepsen, the return of the boy bands, and the fact that Justin Bieber could finally claim to have real chart hits, that indie rock wouldn't be the music that took over - instead, the next few years would be dominated by what he deemed 'teeny-bopper crap'. This statement, in its own way, was rather prophetic, as it did predict the chart success of Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Miley Cyrus over the course of this year, but I wouldn't quite say indie rock has been replaced either. On the contrary, I'd make the argument that considering the rise of digital music and the greater prominence of indie acts, the charts are somewhat split right now between acts moving towards smarter and more mature music and those moving in the exact opposite direction, to mixed success on both ends.

But could there be a possible act to rise up from the intersection of both worlds? Enter Lorde (real name Ella Yelich O'Connor), a sixteen year old New Zealand singer who released her debut album this year titled Pure Heroine, and who has achieved a shocking amount of chart success with her first single 'Royals'. And while I have a healthy amount of skepticism regarding the quality of teenage stars, Lorde has accumulated a certain degree of critical acclaim and praise for her 'razor-sharp lyrics', and her claims to be inspired by Lana Del Rey and Kanye West. And I was even more intrigued by the fact that she actually turned down Katy Perry who wanted to recruit her as an opening act, so I picked up Pure Heroine (heh, good pun) and gave it a spin. What did I think?

Hmm. Well, I think we have another act in my list of those that I admire more than I really like. Make no mistake, Lorde's Pure Heroine is a good, possibly even great album and I'm sure plenty of her fans and target audience (self-aware teenagers her age) will adore it. Me... eh, not so much, and to explain why, I'm going to take you through my thought patterns when I analyzed this album, because I think it'll be the best way for me to articulate my reasoning.

So when I looked through this album, I started with production and instrumentation, and really, that was fairly quick - the production is great. No superfluous effects, the reverb and echo were placed well to give the songs a big, imposing presence, the heavy bass beats were allowed to gain swell and presence in the mix, the melodies are very minimalist but are driven well by the choral vocals and the harmonies. Hell, this album is borderline acapella, and with the spacious production, it's a great fit. On the instrumentation, I did like the few moments that actual guitars showed up - it added an organic touch that blended well into the mix, particularly on the album closer 'A World Alone' - but on the flipside, there were a few electronic elements on '400 Lux' and 'White Teeth Teens' that just kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Nothing all that major, but they did come up. But really, the instrumentation and production do a shockingly good job crafting the atmosphere - an atmosphere that is bleak, dour, and impressively depressing. And unlike most modern hip-hop acts, it was part of the point and it fits the tone very well, so points for Lorde.

And additional points must come for her vocal delivery. I'll admit right out of the gate that I'm not the biggest fan of her voice, per se, but I do like her delivery. It has a lot of dignity and poise and charisma, and while I wouldn't quite say it shows vulnerability well, it does match the tone she is cultivating for this album quite well. Her delivery does show a lot of influence from Lana Del Rey - expressive, often very pretty, but showing a certain reserve that does detract from any raw emotions she's attempting to show. I will say that it's very effective for her lyrical content (I'll get to it, be patient), but it did leave me feeling a little distant, a little isolated from the emotions she was trying to cultivate - which I wouldn't be surprised was part of the point.

With all of that, I started to dig into the elements that are always my favourite to talk about: lyrics, content, and theme. Now Lorde has already received some level of critical acclaim for her songwriting and how polished and sharp it is for her age. And really, the critics that made those statements are pretty much right on the money: Lorde is a very good songwriter. I wouldn't say she's amazing, per se - there were a couple great lines, but her lack of hooks in her material did cool on me a bit - but she definitely defies the stereotype of a teenage girl songwriter and shows a lot of maturity and nuance for her age, which comes out in a big way in her choice of lyrical content.

And what is that content? Well, folks, Lorde's Pure Heroine is an anti-party album, one that has a potent goal of targeting vapid pop culture and skewering it viciously. It's an album that takes whatever is left of the club boom and beats it with a jackhammer, showing how vapid, self-destructive, and ultimately hollow all of this material really is. It's an album pointed at my generation and younger, trying to convince us to cut the crap and sober up to the hot mess so many of us have become. And let me make this absolutely clear: while I remain a sex-positive guy who likes to go out and party, I do understand and appreciate the cold slap in the face against the flagrant irresponsibility so many people my age and younger (and older) are showing. It's a bold message, and Lorde's lyrics are sharp enough to make her point crystal clear. And what's more important is that she frames the situation with nuance, casting herself more often than not in the same light, which earns her populism and gives her material a fair amount of weight that her instrumentation supports beautifully.

So, okay, the lyrics and content worked for me, but why wasn't Pure Heroine resonating with me? So I went a little deeper and posed a simple question: Lorde is very good and pointing out the problems with cutting detail, but what is her solution? She says on her huge surprise hit 'Royals' 'Let me be your ruler... let me live that fantasy'... okay, I appreciate this conceit and the desire for 'alternative' power beyond that of wealth and popularity, something more based on principles, and I respect her intelligence and insight, but why would I gravitate towards her, particularly when it feels like my deference is driving her fantasy and her search for power? What's your bigger point, Lorde, what's the code, you're saying that you're craving a different kind of buzz - hell, you stated on 'Team', my favourite song of the album, that you're hunting for the same sort of spiritual fulfillment that all those shallower artists are looking for - but what is that buzz or fulfillment for which you're looking? Do you even know? Do you actually know what you want or how to get there?

And really, we don't get an answer to those questions, which becomes a problem. Like Vampire Weekend, Lorde is very good with describing situations and talking about them on a surface level, but the second I look to go deeper, I find very little underneath. This, incidentally, is the same issue that everyone found with Lana Del Rey's album Born To Die, which took a critical pounding for being pretty but not really adding up to much. And really, Lorde's message is further undercut (just like Lana Del Rey's was) by her human admittance that she does actually, on some level, like the shallow partying. In fact, she does it twice, on 'Glory and Gore' and 'Still Sane', the latter track lamenting that she might become a part of the same toxic system and believe she is the 'villain', just like her other influence Kanye West. Hell, even 'Royals' shows she has the same populist power fantasy as those shallow acts she's criticizing - it's just framed in a different way, and while I do appreciate this admission of some humanity on the part of Lorde, it doesn't exactly help strengthen the core of her message.

And to go a little further, I'm not entirely sure her ultimate 'buzz' is something I'm drawn to, and this comes to an issue with this album in tone. Simply put, Pure Heroine is a dour, humourless, punishingly bleak listen and while I can appreciate the artistry, it's hard for me to say this is the kind of music I gravitate towards. There's little-to-no upbeat moments on this record, and while 'Buzzcut Season' and 'A World Alone' do a bit to articulate what Lorde's vision is, her solution, grounded in the normalcy of suburbia (but self-aware, so it's totally deep!) just does nothing for me whatsoever. Or maybe her point is that there is no way out, and by stating her observations of our generation's slide towards vapidity, it's given her some vestige of an escape... but in that case, if you're taking such a nihilistic approach and don't believe there's hope for us, doesn't that make shallow happiness all the more appealing, if only to serve as a distraction? I suspect that if Lorde has any sort of underlying thesis for Pure Heroine, it's probably this, and it's lightly supported by 'A World Alone', which is a kiss-off track to all of those who judge her for finding love in her own way... but I do suspect I'm reaching here with my judgments, and either way, I don't think this album quite sticks the landing.

In the end, Lorde's Pure Heroine feels very hollow for me, both on an instrumental basis and in the lyrical content. Now keep in mind for the most part it works, and I do relish the commentary Lorde unleashes on this album... but at the same time, there's a lack of driving focus on this album that really irked me, and the moments of subtext that added shades of nuance only work to muddle things further. For me, it's a strong 7/10 and I do recommend you check it out (particularly the tracks 'Buzzcut Season', 'Team', and 'A World Alone', but as I said earlier, it's an album I admire a lot more than I like. 

And I know some of you will criticize me here for leveling some pretty harsh criticisms at a sixteen year old girl, but really, I'm being as harsh as I am because I do see some real potential on display here. Lorde is a great songwriter, and I do like that she's willing to step up and speak an unpopular and yet compelling message to our generation. But if she wants to lead, she needs to find that path on which to walk besides a downward spiral of negativity.

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