On Youth, Pain and 'Melodrama'

How the story of one breakup makes Lorde's second album the messenger of a universal truth.

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Jun 22 2017, 4:15pm

If you have never a) been sick and/or b) cried in public for the sole reason that you got too fucked up, then one level of Melodrama by Lorde is probably not for you. That's not to say you won't like the second album by New Zealand's premiere pop zealot, released this past Friday (June 16). In fact, you'll probably absolutely love it—how could you, after all, resist its evocative lyrics and delicate musicianship, the wry humour of the thing?—but, I don't know. It's just not entirely for you.

It's rare and interesting to relate intensely to music—often we have very little idea about the real lives of the people who make the music we love, and yet, every so often, we find relative strangers singing our very existences, put to melody, back to us. And that's how I felt the instant I played Melodrama last Friday morning. Written by a woman in her early twenties discovering so much for the first time, the record perfectly mirrors my life—and probably yours, too.

It sounds like when I danced to Carly Rae Jepsen in a windowless room, sweating through my clothes and drinking rum and Ting out of a plastic cup that I was handed by a stranger. But it also sounds like the morning after that, when I woke up at 7 AM to the feeling of my heart beating so urgently I was convinced that it would burst out of my chest. Melodrama is vomit. It is regret. It is sexting. It is the beautiful girls you meet in the bathroom of a nightclub. It is Friday night, and it is Sunday morning, and for these reasons, it is quite, quite perfect.

The album is able to be all of these things because of one catalyst: a colossal, life-shattering breakup. Peppered throughout the record, all the way from opener "Green Light"—"I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth"—are references to a failed relationship, the first significant one in 20-year-old Lorde's young life. Melodrama is imbued with the terrifying freedom of coming out of the other side of something that has come to define you, and of the experiences you allow yourself to have once rid of the safety net (or spider's web, depending on your point of view) of a steady relationship.

Looking at these experiences—partying, hangovers—through the prism of her songs reminds us of the first-time wonder of our own initial brushes with them. And that's when, whether you're a young woman or not, Melodrama earns its universal potency. The pupil-dilating pop whirl of "Green Light," for example, is followed immediately by "Sober," a strange song with erratic, high-in-the-mix percussion and a vocal that gasps for air. "Sober" feels, put crudely, like an aural journey through the inelegant reality of getting smashed, with its loud, weird heartbeat and the palpable sense that a paranoid Lorde could be delivering the lyrics to her reflection in a broken mirror while sat on the toilet at a rager (indeed, she told the New York Times back in April that the album would "tell the story of a single house party").

There are a lot of moments on like this on Melodrama, where I feel able to fit the events Lorde's describes to my own life. There's "Liability," a piano ballad that sounds to me like serotonin loss, eating carbs in bed, and thinking all of the worst possible things about yourself at 2 PM on a Sunday; and there is "Homemade Dynamite," or, as I like to think of it, "All the People You Meet and Momentarily Become Best Friends with When You're Off Your Face." There's also the masterful "Sober II (Melodrama), a searing ode to facing up to what you did last night. In the context of pop music right now, that's especially interesting.

The iconography of The Club is common pop subject matter (both lyrically and formally, considering how ubiquitous enormous drops have become across pop sub-genres), but it's usually overtly glamorized and rendered one-dimensional, hardly ever relatable. On "Sober II (Melodrama)," Lorde redresses that balance by lending beauty to the messy and mundane aspects of partying we know and, begrudgingly, love. "Lights are on and they've gone home, but who am I? / Oh, how fast the evening passes, cleaning up the champagne glasses," she sings, against surging strings which might as well be the dictionary definition of 'melodrama', and which give the familiar drudgery of the next day an odd nobility.

But there's another side of Melodrama too—the side which evokes the memory of the relationship that started the album's chain of events. Here, we can all feel ourselves held in the album's embrace. The fact that memory of a past love this keeps cropping up is, in itself, pretty true to life: when you embark on learning to be yourself again after the end of a major relationship, it's hard to draw a line under it because the feelings involved are so intense. You don't, and can't, forget overnight, and Melodrama's constant return to the relationship that birthed it honors that fact.

On "Hard Feelings/Loveless" she acknowledges the double-sided process of moving on, in all its tenderness ("I light all the candles / Got flowers for all my rooms / I care for myself the way I used to care about you," sung gravely and gently, as if she's building an altar at which she can learn to worship herself, rather than a lover) and visceral savagery. But while there is this consistent sense of looking back, the album's overpowering motion is forward-facing. There are even the palpitations of a new relationship on album highlight "The Louvre," which starts off as an acoustic number but quickly morphs into a heavy, Air-circa-The-Virgin-Suicides-esque haze.

The tracks about relationships on this record are also important in that they're where its influences—both contemporary and not—become most clear. When you consider that pop music is a form almost completely propped up by love songs, and know that Lorde is a self-declared avid consumer of pop music, this makes total sense. On "Supercut," we hear her paying homage to one of pop's contemporary heroes, Robyn, as she throws a celebratory wake for her ended relationship. Meanwhile "Writer in the Dark," exploring the darker side of her breakup, is Kate Bush all over, with a haunting chorus vocal straight off Hounds of Love. Bizarrely, considering how often both "Dancing on My Own" and "Wuthering Heights" were determinedly added to playlists for house parties I've recently been to, I even find the influences relatable.

Over the course of its runtime, Melodrama feels like a soothing balm and a knife in the chest—sometimes both—because it relays your own experiences back to you in every way. It's an album about a very specific crossroads that most people come to in their lives, and its genuine relatability makes it special and important. It's about being young, and learning, and experiencing a whole spectrum of emotions for the first time, and realizing that you don't really know anything at all. After all of the failed love and endless partying, its ultimate mission statement is encapsulated by its final lines: on "Perfect Places," its last note of acceptance, the foil to "Green Light"'s desperate search ("I'm waiting for it"). A weathered-sounding Lorde talk-sings: "All the nights spent off our faces / Trying to find these perfect places / What the fuck are perfect places, anyway?" And honestly, I'm fucked if I know, but trying to figure it out feels pretty good, in its own confusing way.

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