I recently bought the new Lorde album, Pure Heroine, on a bit of a hunch. I hadn’t listened through the whole thing, but I have been familiar with her music since this summer, and I had been hearing remarkably positive reactions from across the board. After listening through the album a few times, I really am struck by how good it is. I tend to be skeptical of albums that I enjoy the first time through, because I almost invariably get tired of them before long. That being said, while I enjoyed the first listen a lot, I found plenty of justification to keep listening, and I’ve yet to be disappointed by a subsequent listen. The first time through, I was mostly struck by the aesthetics. She’s definitely not one-dimensional, which I appreciate. As far as vocal production and melody go, I definitely hear Lana Del Rey, Metric, Kimbra, and Coco Sumner to name a few. Those are all good sounds, and the mix makes all the elements infinitely better. More than just the vocals though, her beats and her mixing are immaculate. The only exception I can come up with is Team: I think the beat on that song is really underdeveloped. It feels a little bit like she just phoned it in (although, apart from the beat, the overall production of the track is exceptionally good). Maybe the most striking element of the album (aesthetically) is the dynamics of the tracks, especially the transitions between the typically minimal verses and typically thick, saturated hooks. There’s not a single track of the ten that stays in the quiet, nor a single one that fails to provide lulls between the heavy-handed hooks that drive the album. And the transitions themselves are really well-worked. They are often sudden (think Tennis Courts or A World Alone) which gives them a power that is often missing in this kind of music. However, they are also graceful and complex. The brilliance of Ribs is that the verses and the choruses are almost identical lyrically, but the choruses are rephrased with a force and precision that counters the meandering of the verse melody. White Teeth Teens introduces multiple melodic fragments that are all equally qualified to be main hooks, and the trick of the song is the seamless transitions between the fragments (and, eventually, overlapping them). I suppose that, in describing the aesthetic elements of the album, I’ve really strayed into song construction. So much of writing electronic music is about throwing away the grid and introducing musicality into songs that are fundamentally based on structure (I am making the controversial claim that good music inherently contains imperfection or disorder, but I’ll assume that most people can go with me on that thought). Point being: she does this extremely well. At no point do these songs become boring. They are exactly as long as they need to be. If there is a minute left in the song, there is some musical element that has not yet been introduced. She saves a shift in the base beat until the final minute of the song several times on the album (notably on White Teeth Teens, where she brings in a sample that cuts the time in half, and then takes it away after four bars). The slow reveal does so much for development within songs, which in turn makes the whole album feel more developed. I truly think that, even though comparisons to contemporary female electronic artists are easier to make, Lorde might be more rightly compared to somebody like James Blake. Obviously it’s not a perfect comparison, because she’s much more pop-sensible, but her level of craftsmanship surpasses that of Lana Del Rey or Ellie Goulding. She doesn’t write really good hooks. She writes really good songs, which contain really good hooks. That’s where I see comparisons to the true geniuses of electronic music rather than this whole electro-pop movement.
However, none of that stuff is really the reason I like the album. I like the album because of the intangibles. There’s honesty and hope and, yes, attention to detail. By ‘honesty’, I’m partially referring to the immaturity of the music. She’s not trying to be thirty, and that’s refreshing. There are lines about a boy seeming grown up because he can drive, lines about the drama of being in high school. Even more than that, there’s a line, “I’m kind of older than I was when I reveled without a care,” seemingly claiming that she’s all grown up…and she clearly isn’t. That in itself says so much about the maturity of the music. It’s not yet all grown up, and that’s fine. She consistently fails to keep her meaning as close to her chest as most artists do. Many of the songs can be taken at face value. Much of the imagery is obvious, and there are times when she simply skirts meaning in favor of an easy rhyme. But the thing is, the immaturity doesn’t take away. There’s growth in the album. The most compelling development of the album is how the central concept of the album (which I might label “aloofness”) is reinterpreted. At the beginning, the aloofness described (especially in the first three tracks) seems to be derived from self-consciousness. It’s the appearance of aloofness that is important. The first message of the album is self-interested: “never not chasing a million things I want.” By the end of the album, the aloofness is not an end in itself, nor is the central concept self-interested. The pivotal line of the final song is, “you’re my best friend, and we’re dancing in a world alone.” The album ends with the lines, “people are talking, people are talking, let ‘em talk.” The aloofness is still there, but it’s not an end in itself; it’s simply a result of a deep affection. Then, if you’re listening on a CD player like I am, the album starts over, and it begins with the line, “don’t you think it’s boring how people talk?” The album isn’t set up as a circular album; rather, it’s set up with book-ends. At the beginning, the judgement of others is an object of derision, and it’s also a point of concern. At the end, it’s no longer relevant. It’s a much more blatant sort of theme than most, and I love its simplicity. Pure Heroine contains a ton of gaudy imagery and boasting, but it also contains a level of vulnerability that makes the whole thing work. As an album, it’s complex enough to yield new insights with every listen, but it’s also limited enough to be cogent and compelling. Hopefully it’s the first of many well-formed albums from Lorde. Perhaps she says it best herself in the album notes: “I poured my brain and heart into this, and maybe I’ll hate it in two years, because that’s the nature of being my age, but for now, it’s the most powerful thing I can give.”
One note: I’ve treated Lorde as the solo project of Ella O’Connor, but the producer, Joel Little, probably deserves just as much credit. He is responsible for much of the instrumentation, as well as a fair amount of the artistic direction.