The Lorde juggernaut breaks the sound barrier this week with the release of her much-anticipated debut LP Pure Heroine. Many critics are still coming to terms with the 16-year-old’s meteoric rise — breakthrough hit “Royals” is currently number one on iTunes above the latest singles from Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus — but it’s actually pretty simple to explain. The Kiwi makes good music, has the all-important cool factor down pat and filled a gaping void in the market for an antidote to the cookie-cutter pop stars dominating the airwaves. She’s basically the Lana Del Rey next door. Cool and different (enough) but still somehow real and approachable.
The comparisons were inevitable but the current queens of hipster-pop are two sides of (admittedly) the same coin. Both represent an easily consumable alternative for pop listeners looking for a less mainstream option but the “Summertime Sadness” diva paints on a broader canvas, mixing influences that occasionally fail miserably and but display a willingness to experiment absent on Pure Heroine. That could have something to do with their personas. Elizabeth Grant literally sang Lana Del Rey to life and ultimately became her, while Lorde is an entity for Ella Yelich-O’Connor to hide behind – where she happily remains in the shadows, writing her gloomy pop tunes.
Does that make her music any less enjoyable? No. If anything if generates an admirable sense of mystery but it explains the occasionally disconnect in Lorde’s lyrics. At her best, the teen captures the searing boredom of suburbia with razor-sharp observations and rare insight. At her worst, she displays a pretentiousness that borders on pathological — making sweeping statements with the all-knowing arrogance of someone who obviously hasn’t experienced much of life yet and is in for some choice surprises as the years roll by. The good news is that she gets it right more often than not and even the grating songs are redeemed by the New Zealander’s undeniable talent. And let’s face it, 16 year olds are supposed to be annoying.
“Royals” might be the song that unexpectedly captured the zeitgeist and set the 16-year-old on a path to international superstardom but — its obvious catchiness aside —feels like something of a gimmick in comparison the LP’s best moments. The song throbs along with its minimal beats, while Lorde sings of excess but it’s ultimately an interesting play on words littered with clever vocal and production hooks. That makes it a great pop song but also oddly hollow and ultimately forgettable. “Tennis Court” is a more authentic glimpse into antipodean ennui. “Never not chasing a million things I want,” she purrs. “And I am only as young as the minute is full of it.” You can see minutiae of suburbia unfolding in front of you as she yearns to get out. “Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane, I’ll see the veins of my city like they do in space,” she sings. There’s something endearing about the honesty and child-like joy at getting out of Auckland. This seems more Ella than Lorde.
Unlike the frustratingly good but irritating “Team”. The track is a definite highlight of the set — the soaring synths are gorgeous and the chorus is undeniable but the verses show a self-indulgence and lyrical laziness not seen since Lady Gaga’s “Applause”. Rhyming “I’m kind over being told to throw my hands up in the air” with “so there” is an epic fail, while hearing someone born in 1996 sing “I’m kind of older than I was when I revelled without a cause” is farcical.
She doesn’t make the same mistake on the beautifully observed “400 Lux”, which is the closest Lorde comes to delivering a love song. “We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain,” she sings is her velvety low register — a peculiarly perfect summery of stifling teen boredom. You can almost see the matchbox homes surrounded by splashes of blue from the far off harbour. Lorde described “Ribs” as her favorite song on the album at a recent gig at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles, which is interesting because it stands out on the set as her most obtuse offering. Again she sings about getting old but this track sounds more conceptual. She displays a vulnerability, singing “you’re the only friend I need, share a bed like little kids” against Joel Little‘s almost-ambient synthscape. This could be a glimpse at her next step as an artist. When she’s outgrown songs about the suburbs and wanting shiny things because she’ll be living in a big city and have a mansion full of them.
Other must-hear tracks are “Glory And Gore” and album closer “A World Alone”. The former sounds like a full-throttle electro-pop song on valium. It wants to go hard but it never gets out of second gear, which strangely makes it more tantalizing and somehow fulfilling. Lorde can add conquering chillwave to her CV. It’s crying out for a remix and could well be a single. The multi-layered vocals and minimal hooks give the song a quirky twist that stuns. “A World Alone”, while less experimental, is easily the prettiest song on the album. It’s basically growing pains set to music. She sings about fake friends, describes herself as a trainwreck waiting to happen (the optimism of the young!) and being raised by the internet. If Taylor Swift’s diary was stolen and re-written by a lonely goth it would sound a lot like this.
“Still Sane”, while atmospheric and insightful about the way she’s coming to terms with fame, is somehow stillborn. It’s basically filler, which is unacceptable when the album offers a measly 10 songs. “Buzzcut Season” is another twinkling postcard from the streets of Auckland (“We ride the bus with the knees pulled in”) but it fails to capture the attention like “400 Lux” or “Tennis Court”. “White Teeth Teens” chugs along enjoyably enough — driven by rolling drums and layers of vocals — but never quite gets out of second gear. It’s a testament to Joel Little’s unwaveringly good production though.
Pure Heroine is a very good calling card for an artist that could go on to do great things. She definitely has the vocal talent and songwriting skills to turn the industry on its head. At present, her scope is a little too narrow and she hasn’t quite found her inner-voice. Is she the gloomy outsider, her own anti-hero or an observant storyteller? That will come. In the meantime, Pure Heroine will be played in a million bedrooms around the world while confused parents try to watch the news over “Royals”. That in itself is an incredible feat. What were you doing when you were 16?
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: “Glory And Gore” and “400 Lux” have radio-friendly hooks and choruses. “Tennis Court” demands a re-release and “Team”, despite its flaws, is a hit.
Best Listened To: Stoned.
Full Disclosure: Having grown up in a similarly painful Sydney suburb (ie. Auckland with a better view), much of Lorde’s imagery rings true and makes me strangely homesick.
Idolator Score: 3.5/5
— Mike Wass