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.