In the four years since Pure Heroine anointed Lorde as the precocious teen queen of minimalist electropop, she’s stepped down from her young god throne to plunge headfirst into messy, raw adulthood.
Tossing aside the blasé attitude she opened her debut album with in “Tennis Court” — sighing, “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk” — Melodrama opener “Green Light” finds Lorde neck-deep in emotion from the start.
A drunk girl in hysterics, she’s spewing bitter sentiments at her ex. She’s crying in the bathroom at the club. Lorde and long-term boyfriend James Lowe broke up in 2015, but “Green Light” is not a breakup song for weeping softly in the fetal position. With a startling key change to bouncing piano that erupts into a shouty anthem, she’s tossing her head back and running screaming into the night. It’s graceless and painful, but it’s hopeful and triumphant at the same time — violent catharsis allows Lorde to crack open her shell and discover “brand new sounds in (her) mind.”
Melodrama isn’t a breakup album, according to Lorde. “It’s a record about being alone. The good parts and the bad parts,” she said in her New York Times interview.
It’s fitting she navigated this emotional territory with songwriter Jack Antonoff, modern-day master of anthemic pop that gets to the gut of a feeling (beloved by the likes of Taylor Swift and Sara Bareilles). Antonoff’s presence launches Lorde into a freshly dynamic sonic palette, his signature grand choruses throbbing at the core with human connection.
Despite Antonoff’s distinct influence, Melodrama preserves the auteurism Lorde has always maintained since she began writing her own songs at age 13. The album arises from the concept of a singular house party, detailing the multitudinous moods of a night out.
In “Sober,” Lorde indulges in the very excess and excitement she made fun of as a white teeth teen. But the euphoria has a bitter aftertaste — among the hedonistic pleasure of partying, a voice at the back of her mind whispers, “But what will we do when we’re sober?”
Despite checking herself periodically, Lorde mostly allows herself to be immersed in the ecstasy of the festivities. “Homemade Dynamite” is explosive: the fevered rush of meeting someone at a party, whimpering synths darting between crashing drums. Lorde gets a hand with the party girl aesthetic from Tove Lo, who shares a songwriting credit. On the Flume-co-produced “The Louvre,” Lorde careens into dizzying obsession, broadcasting the “boom boom boom” of her heart to anyone who will listen.
Of course, there comes a point in the night where the mood shifts from drunk and giddy to melancholy and self-conscious. “Liability” is the bare-bones piano ballad about how fame can push loved ones away, leaving stars like Lorde feeling unwanted. It comes with one of the most striking images of solitude on the whole album: “Play at romance, we slow dance / In the living room, but all that a stranger would see / Is one girl swaying alone / Stroking her cheek.” The sparse production showcases the careful attention to detail Lorde puts into each syllable, enunciating delicately and powerfully in turn.
“Hard Feelings/Loveless” and “Writer in the Dark” find Lorde grappling to untangle herself from the ribbons tying her to a lover she’s been with for years. “Hard Feelings” teeters on desperation, an instrumental climax of scrapes and howls and dissonant synths that sound like furniture being pushed around. “Writer in the Dark” is almost comical; Lorde declares in a babyish whine that she’ll “love you till you call the cops on (her).” But unexpectedly, at her most melodramatic, it’s here that she finally discovers how to be autonomous.
Melodrama ends as it began — with a sad-happy anthem. Lorde searches for “Perfect Places” in intoxication and random hookups, but is left unsatisfied, realizing these are only temporary escapes. There are no perfect places — adulthood is sloppy, shameful and often solitary, but with a return in the chorus to the teenage camaraderie of first-person plural that saturated Pure Heroine, Lorde lets us know we’re not alone.