“As a feminist who is also a music critic,” wrote The Guardian’s Kitty Empire on October 7th (link), “it depresses me deeply that female pop performers find it difficult to market their songs without licking mallets in the buff.”
Enter Lorde, our mallet-free saviour.
Now, we’re not saying Lorde is some sort of 21st century Kiwi Brontë, but it doesn’t take long to realise that 16-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor is quite the promising poet. As a well-read girl with a strong idea of feminism, her lyrical devices and clever wordplay blend point and simplicity seamlessly without ever leaving the listener feeling left out.
With the very first line of her opening track on this debut album, ‘Tennis Court’ – “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?” – Lorde is laying Chekhov’s gun on the table. She unloads the bullet 37 minutes later with the final line of the album – “Let ‘em talk” – to complete the overarching motif of ‘Pure Heroine’.
‘Lorde’ itself is her homemade feminisation of the noble noun, and the album title of ‘Pure Heroine’ literally describes a righteous female leader, yet has 90% of the internet quickly assuming the less-savoury meaning. NY Daily has already labelled each a “blasphemous stage name” and a “druggy play on words” (link). And the fact a writer three times her age can only see that one dimension should have Ella kicking with laughter.
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Yet what will set Lorde aside are her words. There is a certain queerness to things that have become commonplace once they are seen from a new angle, and her lyrics specialise in crashing through the looking glass.
These harsh moments of clarity she proffers are brilliantly genuine. ‘Pure Heroine’ isn’t constructed by a group of 40-something, Grammy-winning songwriters second-guessing what kids want from their pop (and, instead, influencing what they want). This is written by someone who’s a kid right now, about what it is to be young right now. Consequently, this isn’t a “you” and “I” album. It’s a “we”, “us” and “them” album.
Lorde’s voice has a cool and smoky timbre, which can become fiery (‘White Teeth Teens’) or serene (‘400 Lux’) at the drop of a beat. Comparisons to Lana Del Rey persist, but there is an essence of conviction here that was missing on ‘Born To Die’.
Each track on ‘Pure Heroine’ contains its own semi-fantasy setting, which Lorde utilises to portray her narrative purpose. ‘400 Lux’ (the measurement of light emitted from a sunset or sunrise) is a flawed but worthy paradise that champions doing f*ck all, and the surrounding instrumentation shares sonic similarities with M.I.A.’s ‘Paper Planes’.
On ‘Team’ and ‘Glory And Gore’, a pair that feel as if they were written together, she creates a two-part dystopian saga. On the former, amidst pounding drums and an anthemic chorus, she washes her hands of popular culture before pushing the Black Mirror-esque theme on the latter with blood-stained gladiatorial comparisons to celebrity culture. Intentional or not, it’s cleverly ironic that she uses such dramatic metaphors to mock a culture she feels has become excessive.
It’s these moments of sharp satire and sentimental brevity that are defining Lorde. With her debut single, ‘Royals’, she comes pretty close to birthing a ‘Common People’ for Generation Y, dressing down the 1%, glorifying the ordinary, identifying the fear, and dropping lines like grenades that burst into a million personal connotations in your head.
Another single, ‘Tennis Court’, opens with vocals, a reverbed synth and an electronic pulse that’s not dissimilar to The xx’s ‘Together’. In no time, she’s tackling schoolyard stereotypes (“Baby, be the class clown / I’ll be the beauty queen in tears”), impending fame and adolescent complexities with snappy couplets: “It’s a new art form showing people how little we care / We’re so happy even when we’re smilin’ out of fear.”
The actual music isn’t bad either, and her partnership with producer Joel Little has yielded some glittering, forward-thinking pop soundscapes. His less-is-more approach is stunningly minimal at times, and it’s vital in accentuating Lorde’s vocals and creating a focal point.
The first minute of ‘Royals’, now a stonewall hit, is staggeringly spacious, with just vocals, percussion and threadbare bass. Likewise, the outro to ‘White Teeth Teens’ is a master class in subtlety, as Little lets a lonely vocal play out like a folk choir.
This album hasn't changed the pop game, and Lorde’s frank analysis of pop culture isn’t something we don’t know, but it’s definitely something we aren’t shouting about. ‘Pure Heroine’ has come at a time when we're staring at Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, up at the cultural Frankenstein of our world stage and then at each other and thinking, “Is this a consequence of the culture and industry we've created around us? Is this what it takes to sell?”
But the popularity of ‘Pure Heroine’ suggests all is not lost. It says there’s still an intellectual, polished and important place for pop, that doesn't rely on open letters, open legs, Twitter, twerking and obscenely desperate electro hooks. Whether the burgeoning pressure of becoming a star will get the better of Lorde, we’ll undoubtedly find out. But for now, she is most definitely our "queen bee".
Words: Joe Zadeh
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Lorde, ‘Tennis Court’
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Stream songs by Lorde via Deezer, below…