Cyborgs don't gasp.
A sharp, shallow suck of air starts Melodrama like a subtle boast. An oxygen-dependent mammal's on the mic -- no glambot pop warrior encased within an electrobeat exoskeleton, just a squishy slab of messy flesh like all the rest. It's a savvy display of imperfection as affectation, like that precisely wrongly placed squeak of a guitar string on your favorite indie record letting you know how carefully it was underproduced to simulate spontaneity. And no opening whip-wristed snare crack could have announced Lorde's return more dramatically.
You've heard the song that inhalation introduces, “Green Light,” since March now, and you know what follows. Ella Yelich-O'Connor, former heroically unimpressed suburban New Zealand teen, staggers groggily into her 20s, nursing an obsession with an ex over a nagging, nearly one-note drone of a verse. Next a percussive piano jabs insistently into the mix, less like its rhythms are guiding the song to the chorus than as if the door to a club has been flung open and the blare of a house DJ's set threatens to drown out Lorde's morose observations. A tiny faerie army of Lordettes harmonizes from above to rouse and rally her and soon the chorus teeter-totters between Lorde sulking “I can't let go” and her hedonistic Jiminy Crickets chiming “The green light I want it” – the call and response of an old-time girl group recast as a tug of war between ecstasy and melancholy.
Melodrama centers on that clash of desires, the tension between a neurotic overthinker exercising control over her past by compulsively retelling it on her terms and a frisky teen driven to lose control entirely in druggy, lustful oblivion. We're such a long way from the defensive huddling against the high school in-crowd that Lorde's debut, Pure Heroine, channelled so expertly that it seems hardly worth looking back, and we're even further from the dueling thinkpieces over whether “Royals” and its distaste for gaudy pop consumerism empowered arty kids to reject cliches or allowed privileged white snobs to mock hip-hop culture. A thousand times duh on both counts — to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time, like, super-problematic.
Lorde's husky murmur, which still suggests an uncool adult studiously imitating a sullen teen sarcastically imitating a cool adult, is relentlessly foregrounded here, so as she sings, the production seems to happen around her, either as a world she moves through or as elemental force she's summoned. She and her accomplice Jack Antonoff splatter manic electronic splotches against your earbuds and tinker with harmonies till they flutter away with unhinged aplomb. No wonder Max Martin reportedly recoiled in methodical Swedish horror at the ungainly structure of “Green Light.” Every song on Melodrama is an affront to Martin's own technique of streamlining hook, voice, and beat into a single unyielding melodic thrust.
Much of the thrill here comes from Lorde's awareness that the mood-altered funtime of your late teen years is both inane and exhilarating. “I guess we're partying,” she observes as though from a distance on “Homemade Dynamite,” fantasizing about dying with her pals in a drunken roadside crash like that'd be the perfect way to end the night. And on “Perfect Places” she stands at the head of a resentful choir chanting, “We are young and we're ashamed” as they endure “another graceless night” of compulsory casual sex and euphoric tedium.
But more of the thrill here comes from the fact that Lorde has an ex-boyfriend to dump on. Every savvy pop star knows to never let a breakup go to waste. Fortunately, to the extent (considerable, says Lorde) that Melodrama is autobiographical, the leading man is an undistractingly non-famous photographer, which means we get to focus on the songs without playing guess-who. More pop stars should date civilians.
Melodrama wields stardom as a kind of dark magic against romantic betrayal, recognizing that a woman with public power can use her lyrics to reinvent the past. “I whisper things, the city sings 'em back to you,” Lorde murmurs ominously on “Green Light,” a theme she returns to on the vengeful “Writer in the Dark,” where she tells the man who “hated hearing my name on the lips of a crowd” that "now she's gonna play and sing and lock you in her heart.” (PSA: Don't date songwriters. Don't date any writers, really.) And yet, on “Supercut,” she recognizes the limitations of art: She can edit her memories into any story she wants to tell, but in the end she's left with a well-crafted montage that doesn't change what happened.
Way back when, “Royals” was canny artistic positioning, like Eminem mocking Britney and N Sync to prove he was popular but not, you know, pop. But on Melodrama the real grim lady stakes her turf just as self-consciously but less defensively. “We’re the greatest, they’ll hang us in the Louvre,” she brags, before adding, “Down the back, but who cares — still the Louvre," like Leonard Cohen placing himself a hundred floors below Hank Williams in the Tower of Song. The least famous celebrity in the room, the brightest of the lesser geniuses — Lorde is content to be either, or determined to be both. Let her live that fantasy.