Review: Lorde's 'Melodrama' Is Fantastically Intimate, a Production Tour De Force

Our take on the New Zealand diva's long-awaited second LP

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Review: Lorde's 'Melodrama' Is Fantastically Intimate, a Production Tour De Force
Lorde reflects on the end of her teenage years and the "emotional renaissance" of 'Melodrama.'

On her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde ridiculed pop music while glorying in it. The former Ella Yelich-O'Connor displayed an honor-roll-brat-in-detention-hall flow, a goth sense of drama and the sort of supreme over it-ness that only an actual 16-year-old can muster. Full of heart and nuanced writing, the LP was a small masterpiece and a massive hit as well. You could tell the Auckland, New Zealand kid was in for the long haul, and, after a four-year wait, her second album, Melodrama, confirms that notion.

Now 20, Lorde signals a new order straightaway, with lonely piano chords where Pure Heroine's pure electronic palette was. They open the single "Green Light," a barbed message to an ex who the singer can't quite shake. The song grows into a stomping electro-acoustic thrill ride, its swarming, processed vocal chant "I want it!" recalling another precocious, hyperliterate, synth-loving auteur singer-songwriter – Kate Bush, who insisted "I want it all!" back in 1982 on "Suspended in Gaffa." Give Lorde credit for wanting it all too – the massive vistas of electronic music alongside the human-scaled and handmade.

That's the trick here, abetted playfully by co-writer/co-producer Jack Antonoff, who brings the rock-schooled song sense he coined with fun. and honed on Taylor Swift's 1989 to Lorde's electro-pop craftiness. Using empty space to spectacular effect, the arrangements veer from stark clarity to delirium, often in a few bars. Like the finger snaps on her breakout, "Royals," small touches loom: the dry guitar opening of "The Louvre," with its ambient-dub atmospherics; the distant yelps and heraldic roots-reggae brass on "Sober," a sexy midtempo jam endlessly second-guessing its own pleasure; the screeching industrial noise and f-bombs on "Hard Feelings – Loveless"; the trap beats that strafe the title track's orchestral brooding. As a pop song production display, it's a tour de force.

Lorde's writing and fantastically intimate vocals, ranging from her witchy, unprocessed low-register warbles to all sorts of digitized masks, make it matter. She has said the album's conceit is a house party and its unfolding dramas; indeed, Pure Heroine's cool snark is now a hotter passion, in its millennial-skeptical way. It's most vivid on the rueful piano ballad "Liability," a meditation on the loneliness of an ambitious pop drama queen.

But Melodrama's most striking moment may be the tiny aside on "Homemade Dynamite" – a goofy new-lust paean with a Top Gun reference and a death wish – when Lorde vocalizes a tiny explosion amid total silence, like a friend whispering a wordless message in your ear in a nightclub booth as chaos rages. It's emblematic of a modern pop record that prizes old-school intimacy, and lingers well after the house lights have gone up.