On her 2013 debut album, Pure Heroine, 16-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Conner — better known as Lorde — elegantly crafts a landscape of teenage angst, one far more genuine than a punk song about how mom and dad don’t quite understand.
Nearly four years later, Lorde re-introduces herself to the world on Melodrama, now finding herself to be a disillusioned 20-year-old still coming to terms with the minutiae of love, loss and the experience of a drunken hook-up with a stranger. She guides listeners through a house party jam-packed full of conflicting emotions, drunk texts and the tiny twinge of self-loathing that accompanies each tequila shot.
By and large on Melodrama, gone are the minimal electronic beats and deep, dark bass lines that marked Pure Heroine; replacing them are pulsing synths and hip-hop influences, and sometimes poignant piano and cinematic strings, making Melodrama a much more sonically rich album than its predecessor. This development can likely be credited to Lorde’s main co-conspirator on Melodrama: Jack Antonoff, who previously helped forge two other knockout pop albums, fun.’s Some Nights and Taylor Swift’s 1989.
With production help from Antonoff, Lorde’s talents return and shine; somehow, she’s got even better. Whether digitally layered or left on their own, Lorde’s stunning vocals move across the pitch spectrum flawlessly, from her falsetto to her trademark smoldering low register. This is demonstrated best on “Writer in the Dark,” where she jumps between the two effortlessly.
Always her strength, Lorde’s songwriting makes the listener feel as though they are privy to intimate conversations — lyrics like “My hips have missed your hips” and “Blow all my friendships/To sit in hell with you” feel pulled straight from a romance novel.
Real love, though, is never as perfect as a romance novel. Lorde knows that now. As Melodrama runs its 41-minute course, she tries to forget a man who she has no business loving, hoping that enough alcohol and other men will help. But Melodrama is not a breakup album, as Lorde told The New York Times: “It’s a record about being alone,” she said in April.
Throughout the album, Lorde reveals her deepest inner thoughts to the listener, particularly her feelings of loneliness and inadequacy: “The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/'Til all of the tricks don't work anymore,” she croons on the impassioned ballad “Liability.” She also reflects on the immediate spark of curiosity from meeting someone new (“Don't know you super well/But I think that you might be the same as me/Behave abnormally” on the lively “Homemade Dynamite”) and that aforementioned pang of self-hatred while taking tequila shots (“Oh, God, I'm closing my teeth/Around this liquor-wet lime” on the pensive-yet-groovy “Sober”).
No song on Melodrama better encapsulates its feelings of tumultuousness than the closing track, “Perfect Places.” A cathartic track that follows a reprise of “Liability,” its slow build to a glimmering chorus parallels the song’s, and album’s, themes of both joy and sadness. No matter how many tequila shots she downs to numb the pain — “All the nights spent off our faces/Trying to find these perfect places” — she is left wondering, “What the f--- are perfect places anyway?”
In the end, Lorde doesn’t quite understand life’s flaws, but she has realized that flaws are fine. And that is what makes Melodrama such a sparkling masterpiece: Instead of pushing aside the sadness to make a joyful album, Lorde celebrates the reality of sadness — and in that, she overpowers her malaise and basks in the comfort of imperfection.