Four years can feel like a lifetime in our increasingly fickle, hyper-paced world, particularly for a musician finally getting around to releasing the follow-up to a debut she recorded when she was just 16. It’s a gamble that pays off for Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as Lorde, on Melodrama, which retains the core elements of the New Zealand singer-songwriter’s distinctive sound—minimalist arrangements, catchy melodies, and wry, deadpan vocal performances—but bends and twists the template in surprising ways.
Lorde’s 2013 debut, Pure Heroine, was a snapshot of disaffected youth punctuated by sardonic black humor beyond her years. Functioning in a similar fashion as Adele’s numerically titled efforts, Melodrama sees Lorde on the cusp of adulthood, at a remove from the overnight stardom prompted by her first album. Fame has the potential to keep creative minds hermetically sealed away from their former lives, their worldview myopic and out of touch with the rest of society, but the opposite seems to be true here.
Whether it’s due to the consequences of that notoriety or simply the result of the inevitable maturation afforded by the nearly four years in between albums, the inner life Lorde reveals on Melodrama is richer and, in many way, more accessible that the one presented on Pure Heroine. She allows herself to be vulnerable and love-locked on songs like “Liability” and “Writer in the Dark” in ways she wasn’t able to before. The heartbreaking revelation on the former track that she’s just “a toy that people enjoy/’Til all of the tricks don’t work anymore” sucks the air right out of what’s ostensibly a totem to self-love.
Lorde’s still often sharp and funny (“They’ll hang us in the Louvre/Down the back, but who cares?/Still, the Louvre,” she quips on “The Louvre”) and indulges in the provinces of the young (drinking, drugs, sex, even the romanticization of dying in a fiery car crash on “Homemade Dynamite”), but she’s more fully fleshed and less of a goth-witch caricature. “She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar,” she seethes on the album’s lead single, “Green Light,” her anger ignited not just by the possibility that her former lover is deceiving someone, but that maybe she didn’t know him either.
Despite its title, the album isn’t histrionic. It simmers and builds from track to track, loaded with unlikely hooks, from the spoken refrain of “The Louvre” to the taunts that close “Sober II (Melodrama),” with Lorde’s vocals venturing into a more playful, previously unexplored upper register. “Loveless,” a seemingly unfinished two-minute doodle of a song tacked onto the end of the industrial-infused “Hard Feelings,” is a happy surprise, as it’s perhaps the most shamelessly poppy track that Lorde has recorded to date, peppered with prickly bon mots like “Bet you wanna rip my heart out/Bet you wanna skip my calls now/Guess what? I like it.”
With its tales of drunken meet-cutes and messy mornings after, Melodrama is an unexpected house-party record—thematically, if not sonically (the exception is “Supercut,” which comes pretty close to euphoric Robyn-grade synth-pop). But whether it’s a party record disguised as a breakup album or a breakup album disguised as a party record, it’s cathartic, dramatic, and everything else you could want an album titled Melodrama to be. And it concludes, on “Perfect Places,” with the ultimate mark of maturity—the realization that our heroes and chemicals will inevitably fail us, and the discovery that the pursuit of escape is both futile and sublime.