Let’s get this out of the way first: Lorde’s Melodrama is deserving of your attention and of multiple listens. Its eleven tracks froth with complicated, utterly relatable, scientifically-examined emotions, trying to catch every craggy nuance; it dives deep into the exact, pallid, core-shaking feelings that love and loss can bring to all of us. Melodrama demands you sit with it, just to experience the sheer amount of work and effort Lorde and producer Jack Antonoff (of Fun. and Bleachers fame) stuffed the cracks of this album full of.
This should have been expected, though it’s hard to expect anything on a sophomore effort from an overnight success like Lorde. “Royals” catapulted her to notoriety in a way only a select few of all musicians ever get to experience, and Pure Heroine sold loads because of the ubiquity of her music for months.
What is most surprising about Melodrama, then, is just how long it took to reach us. Four years with little more than a song in The Hunger Games and a feature on a Disclosure track is an eternity for a new artist. Riding the high of a monumental first album can last, but not for that long, not with how flighty cultural consciousness can be. Fellow pop contemporaries like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Kesha all put out sophomore efforts roughly two years after their first major successes, both artist and studio alike wanting to keep their talons sunk in.
Memory is fickle, and society moves quickly to the next shiny object.
Whatever Lorde got up to in those four years did her immeasurable good, though. What she returned with is a modern pop masterpiece. Melodrama cascades with melancholy, like quickly melting ice cream on a hot day; it is tear-streaked and danceable, all at once. Every song on the album is an emotional double exposure, shoving two usually conflicting emotions together in the forefront of the song. Lorde then makes these feelings sway together like awkward teenagers at a high school dance.
These friction-filled emotional clashes is where Lorde shines, too. Where other musicians might merely write a sad song, Lorde fuses reflective sadness with that kind of anger that you can’t let out because you’re in public, and we get “Liability”. Where another singer would reliably give us a straightforward breakup song, Lorde amalgamates the nebulous loss with a wry wickedness about plans for the ghost of her lover, and gives us “Writer in the Dark”. Each song is a knot to untangle, and every time you tease one snarl apart, another has formed elsewhere.
Nothing on Melodrama is simple, which is why it’s so worthy of the listener’s time. The reason why this complexity matters transcends the simple refrain of “pop music can be thoughtful”, because the reason why is good and dangerous. By deciding to not write a slew of “Royals”-alikes, Lorde lands a victorious blow for albums—and that’s the rub here. Lorde wrote an album. Not a series of singles, and not a very nice set of songs.
Lorde decided to be an album artist, and that is incredibly important for this one-album darling.
If pop music was on a pendulum, one extreme would house a plaque reading “collection of commodifiable singles” and the other would be graffiti reading “cohesive albums”. During the 1950s, pop radio as we know it was just starting to come into its own, and highly marketable songs were damn near lusted for. These pop musicians, which included crooners and standard-bearers, released albums nearly every year, churning out multitudes of great songs. What these albums gave us in singular song quality, though, they lacked in through-lines.
Bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys shifted this idea in the 1960s, releasing far more thoughtful, intricate, and most importantly cohesive albums. Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Pet Sounds defined an era of pop music, allowing the genre to indulge in introspection and intelligence.
These were not concept albums per se, though concept albums would be incredibly important in the coming decades for dividing the always-intellectual from the bubblegum pop. What the Beatles and the Beach Boys (among others) made were songs enmeshed in one another based on married styles, content, and mixing. No longer were pop albums relegated to a series of easily-sellable singles. There are songs on Sgt. Pepper that do not easily divide themselves down into radio-friendly bits, and Pet Sounds has songs that have an oceanic quality, rolling and breathing, and would never fit nicely into 1960s airwaves as solo releases.
This ebb and flow of pop music from scope and breadth to cash cow and back continues throughout the decades, up to now. It’s not hard to track, due to the ravages of time pinpointing pop albums that stand up against capricious, shifting opinions. The late 1980s gave us the art pop movement that begat Peter Gabriel’s So, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, and the entirety of the Eurythmics’ catalog. The 1990s saw mainstays like Madonna release Erotica and Ray of Light, while Alanis Morissette broke into a rock-oriented pop with Jagged Little Pill.
And much like most things in the world, this is all leading up to Beyoncé.
When Beyoncé’s eponymous surprise album dropped in 2013, it was a shock to mainstream pop’s system for two reasons. One, the most obvious, was that we were given a gift like it was our birthday and everyone had forgotten but Beyoncé. The second, and more important reason, is that arguably the most influential pop musician subverted the entire pop superstructure and made art without focus testing. What Beyoncé represented was a musician who, until then, was a symbol of the corporate iTunes era of pop taking back her autonomy. The album was long and artful, full of haunting refrains and overt dialog on female sexuality. It was not one to easily cut into singles, though a few were put on top 40 radio.
This was far and away the first strike back against the iTunesification of music that became the dominant paradigm in the late 2000s and early 2010s. While the advent of mp3s and portable media was a boon for the consumer, it was predicated on the “series of singles” mentality of pop music. To sell an entire album to someone in the late 2000s, every song needed to be a bonafide hit. Every song had to sell itself individually, to merit an entire album’s purchase. Yet, here is Beyoncé, dropping with no lead-up, demanding hard listening, and prevailing.
2013 was a turning point. It was not that there were not pop musicians making introspective, exploratory albums up until 2013, but it was never from someone dominating pop culture’s thousand-faced god machine. You could not wave your hand in any direction without bumping against something Beyoncé was a part of. Beyoncé was not the work of some upstart appearing out of nowhere, it was someone enmeshed in the beast deciding to excise themselves from it once and for all.
Beyoncé’s decision flew in the face of logic, and her risk paid dividends.
From this point forward, artists across the musical spectrum start realizing that cohesion can be their friend—and moreso, that audiences will listen. Sia released 1000 Forms of Fear, a dance-pop ode to personal demons of anxiety in 2014. Miley Cyrus hit us with & Her Dead Petz in 2015, and it is so aggressively anti-Disney and full of dreamy haze that as much as it is polarizing, it’s worth mentioning.
Other musicians picked up the pace in 2016, from Rihanna’s much-anticipated and boozy ANTI, to Neon Trees’ Tyler Glenn making a combative, difficult album about his sexuality & his Mormon upbringing in Excommunication, and even Miranda Lambert, exploring a dive bar dreamscape with The Weight of These Wings. These are just a few examples, but the point is that pop was beginning to think about what it meant to make an album, as an art piece, again.
It would be irresponsible to not mention the role that streaming music services had in reviving the album. While not bankrolling these endeavours, the advent of multiple companies devoted to full-access music, from Spotify to Google Play, allowed the album the foothold it needed. The pros and cons of streaming music would take up a whole different essay, but it is important to remember this change in musical listening habits. No longer were people relegated to either buying an album whole or just the single song they wanted; consumers now had the incredibily signficant power of prolonged exposure, able to queue up an album that looked interesting and give it the 100 pages test. It was revelatory for the concept of 21st century album artistry.
Here we are now, in June of 2017, and Lorde releases Melodrama. This album was not a surprise, mind you—Lorde released a video for “Green Light” months beforehand, and performed two songs from the album on Saturday Night Live in March. There was even a playlist curated by Lorde on Spotify called “Homemade Dynamite” (a nod to a new track) that featured a series of party bangers she was listening to while recording. After four years of near-silence, here was a real, true album, with hype and a ramp-up.
What Lorde had to lose, coming into her second album, was absolutely everything. All the musicians listed above with artsy, cohesive albums had real, concrete history behind them. Sia was writing music for herself and big-name pop stars since the early 2000s. Miley Cyrus was riding the cultural currency of her Disney days, not to mention Wayne Coyne’s support. Beyoncé was just Beyoncé and could sneeze into a microphone and be fine.
The Beatles. Kate Bush. Alanis Morissette. Madonna. All these musicians had capital, had years of work behind them already when they went bigger and bolder.
Lorde only had one album that gave us three big singles, and those were years behind her. While she was touring and making appearances in the intervening time, returning to form with something that was not a surefire single factory meant being so decisively confident in what she made that it wouldn’t matter. Clearly Lorde and her collaborators were correct, as Melodrama is all one could hope for in a cohesive pop album, but the risk is not to be written off.
There’s a cultural stigma that hangs over new artists after the swell over their first album dies down: the sophomore slump. An artist’s second effort, in true fickle impossibility, is supposed to both deliver more of the same ‘good shit’ that their breakout release gave us, and yet deliver something entirely new and inventive. It is a thin, thin tightrope and, considering the fans and critics supply so tenuous a pathway, the onus is mostly on us. We are the ones aching for two incredibly incongruous things at once—comfortable sameness and novelty.
It is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle at work: we can know the position or the momentum, but never both.
Some people succumb to the sophomore slump. Some people quiver at the idea of following up something that was so triumphantly loved, celebrated, championed. Fame is a Janus-faced mistress, and can drop onto and launch itself back off of an artist with one alignment of time, sound, catchiness, and quirky unpindownable je ne sais quoi; what is more, all of this can happen between breaths.
There are musicians that are victims of the sophomore slump. Lorde decided to pick a fight with it, then make up and sit down for a chat with it while they both nursed matching bloody noses. What we got to hear was the aftermath of it all.
It’s a pretty damn fine aftermath.
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