Wednesday, June 21, 2017

album review: 'melodrama' by lorde

So here's a hidden truth about critics: as much as there should be a certain self-awareness that the vast majority of the mainstream won't care enough about your opinion whether to buy something, deep down critics love to think they can shape the pop culture conversation by their praise of certain art. And I'm not immune to this - I'd love to think that through my reviews I'm helping enshrine some albums with the historical weight and importance they'd deserve.

And yet with Lorde... going back to my review of Pure Heroine, I think I might have blown it. Yes, part of this comes with context - I was in my first year of seriously covering records, there is a learning curve, and even then I'll admit that I may have missed the mark there. Going back to Pure Heroine I criticized it for being able to categorize the frustration behind the sound without proposing a solution, or on some level catering to similar populist power fantasies as the party artists she criticized, just with different framing. And while these are somewhat salient points, they're countered by the acknowledgement that Lorde was still a teenager, and Pure Heroine in retrospect does bear some of the marks of that adolescence - not in the writing, but the framing, and even then Lorde was self-aware enough to realize that even if she had a grand vision of change, it's not like she had the cultural power to make it happen.

And thus I can't help but notice the irony in the fact that Lorde's Pure Heroine hasn't just been elevated to critical acclaim, but also became alarmingly influential - and I say alarming because for as much as I missed the message, other critics and pop stars missed it harder. The monochromatic production with greater percussion emphasis may have felt a little drab at the time, but fast-forward to so many modern pop stars seizing it as a method to be taken seriously and it's led to years of utterly forgettable tunes. Sure, abuse of autotune was eased back, but it was replaced by a crop of husky-voiced starlets who had nowhere near the charisma or intensity of emotion that always coursed through Lorde's best work, to say nothing of far weaker writing. And then there's Lorde herself: people were drawn to her charisma and seemingly vast wells of potential as an artist, but it also seemed like so few people knew how to contextualize her music or her distinct writing and presentation, which seemed to culminate in a connection to Taylor Swift who in recent years has piled up layers of artifice to reflect an increasingly artificial persona, which flew in contrast to Lorde's more raw, almost unnerving edge - earnest and heartfelt, but with the poise and confidence to pivot wildly and stick the landing. Hell, it's one of the reasons why so many critics, including myself, were convinced that Lorde wouldn't be long for pop at all, and that she'd join indie acts in the vein of Bjork or Swans where she'd have more artistic freedom to harness and refine that intensity... and yet she didn't do that. She's too much of a populist, instead enlisting Jack Antonoff as a cowriter and producer - which if you saw my last Bleachers review you'll know makes way too much sense - and calling her newest record Melodrama and describing the loose thematic ties as a breakup at a house party... well, shit, when you think about it in context it makes way too much sense, and yet I'm stunned that I missed it. But you've all waited long enough here: how is Melodrama?

You know, I've got to be honest here - I think I went into this record with skewed expectations, because on the first few listens I remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed by this album. 'Green Light' is such a bombastic way to set the stage, such a potent entry point that you could be excused for expecting that we'd get more tunes in that mold, when truth is that doesn't quite happen. And while there is definitely a part of me that wishes we got more of these unconventional and yet potent pop explosions, several more listens gave me the impression that Lorde is playing in slightly different territory, the sort of pop satire that she introduced on Pure Heroine with better framing, stronger melodies, and overall a much more engaging project - yes, Melodrama is a great album, but it's not greatness that'll reveal itself immediately.

Well, at least beyond the obvious, and in that category it's Lorde herself. If you couldn't tell by my extended intro, I'm a huge fan of her more intense, expressive delivery, but the truth is that this intensity is tempered and expanded greatly on this project, pushing her husky tones into fragile coos, defiant belting, and the sort of heavily expanded overdubs and multitracking that steps away from the ascetic purity into something more colorful and expressive. And a huge part of this is the framing: Pure Heroine, for as much as the insight framed her within the system also slightly compromised her populism by dismissing much of the pop around her - Melodrama removes all of that distance and places her brand of intensity within the party, and while the insight is still there, it's tempered and rendered more raw by actual experience. It's one reason why 'Liability' remains one of my favourite tracks on this record, as she's confronted with the loneliness of holding everything and everyone to her standards and all too aware that people will be intimidated by her intensity or will seek to discard her to remove the discomfort, to maintain that veneer of cool. And that's the first fascinating and very modern approach to pop that Lorde dissects, and one that almost serves as a direct refutation to the broad scope of Pure Heroine - there's an element of cool in not caring and being above that system, but the acknowledgement that deep down you really do care and are engaging in it regardless, that's more interesting, and it's at the core of what gives Melodrama its dramatic weight. 

And while we will come back to this when we discuss lyrics, a big part of that greater color and populism comes in the production. I've been cheering the addition of Jack Antonoff as executive producer for Lorde for a while now, and that intensely earnest commitment to melody pays massive dividends here, beyond just the vocal arrangements that seem tailor-made for huge crowd singalongs. But it's telling how even despite these populist moments, Antonoff and Lorde manage to slide in enough discordant elements to show just how her intensity can throw things slightly askew and yet eerily familiar in modern pop. I might not be wild about the muffled vocal fragments that open 'Sober' - even if they fit thematically as the voices that run ignored - but the horns behind it add a level of ominous bombast I really like, making me wish the song had a stronger conclusion, something later echoed in the noisy accents of rattling trap percussion against the delicate strings. Similar case for 'The Louvre', which already amps up the tension plenty thanks to the throbbing bassline, but there's a great little melodic accent on the second verse in the piano that sets the stage for the warping effects that open up to a lonely echoing guitar. And that's before we get to the melodic hooks, like the unstable guitar and beat behind 'Hard Feelings/Loveless' that eventually mutates into the best sort of squealing industrial glitch, maintaining plenty of melody in its own right, or the more conventional concluding track 'Perfect Places' with its touches of pianos and its huge swelling hook as the guitar groove materialized - another thing that the rock fan in me wished cut through a little more. Now I will say that I do wish some songs didn't feel quite so detached - 'Homemade Dynamite' has a certain recklessness in its content I wish was captured by more than just faded synths - and 'Supercut' feels a tad too much like a Bleachers track with its thrumming rubbery low-end and low-end, even if I really do love the beat behind it and the the multi-tracking... and that's before you realize that part of the melody is extrapolated from 'Green Light'. And that is something to call out - over half of this record shares overlapping melodic motifs and throughlines, sometimes even directly calling back to Pure Heroine, and there's a part of me that wishes there was a little more melodic variance instead of multiple reprises.

But then again, this is a record that does have a loose conceptual framework, so let's come back to that 'house party' and theme of 'cool' balanced against caring that serves as this record's fundamental idea. And it's very important to establish that like with Pure Heroine Lorde is intensely self-aware even about the emotional stakes of this record, especially because she knows on some level it's all so melodramatic for her, her peers, and really the majority of my generation. Because she gets how all the reckless, inflamed imagery in songs like 'Homemade Dynamite' look, and how the stakes are inflated by that emotionality where it would be so easy to detach and surrender to ironic disaffection. And it's an easy temptation, especially in the era of social media with relationships that seem engineered to be disposable along with the rampant substance abuse at these parties - methods of disengagement with emotional connection even despite a deeply buried hunger for it that our generation is willing to cling to whenever we find the genuine connection. With Lorde, her intensity strips away that artifice, which is a credit to her performance but so much moreso to the writing - where 'Sober' opens the connection and from there we watch her throw herself in too deep too fast, which is one of the reasons why 'Liability' is so damn heartbreaking, where she's dismissed for the same raw passionate connection that deep down everyone wants! The rest of the record really focuses on processing that heartbreak - which of course she knows is melodramatic, but as we get especially on 'Hard Feelings/Loveless' she's not one to silence herself from that. And yeah, it leads to the unsettling obsession of 'Writer In The Dark' - where her rejected intensity forms a feedback loop with her muse - which tends to happen with artists - but it also comes with the acknowledgement on 'Supercut' that our own memories intentionally inflame our own actions and choices, and with the reprise of 'Liability' it comes with the acknowledgement that those experiences ultimately enhance our humanity, all in that search for something deeper and real to break through the loneliness. And to end with 'Perfect Places', in a world that again feels so impermanent and where a lot of people would succumb to nihilistic detachment or the projected shame dumped upon our generation, Lorde gives it the middle finger and while she's accepts the consequences of that reckless love, she sure as hell isn't going to abandon it.

So in short... I'm just waiting for the Gen X thinkpieces about this record that might praise the intensity but take a crowbar to the raw, reckless earnestness beneath it, especially given the detached cool of Pure Heroine wound up getting overanalyzed anyway - and make no mistake, if this record does as well as I think it will, those are coming. And yet they'll ultimately miss the point, especially as on a loose thematic level there's a striking parallel between Melodrama and the last album I covered, The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. And while I don't quite think this record is as strong - more on a few production and melodic quibbles, it still can feel a little too icy at points for me - this is still an absolutely terrific pop record that celebrates pop, then dissects and satirizes it, then loops around to celebrate it all the harder. For me, it's a strong 8/10 and a huge recommendation, but given how many requests I got for it, you've already heard it. Melodrama... it lives up to its title, but Lorde shows its humanity, and why we might just need it after all.

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