“Melodrama” is not the best album of the summer. The album, Lorde’s long-awaited followup to her 2013 debut “Pure Heroine,” is an often frustrating affair — despite the three-and-a-half year wait between the two releases, the lyrics on “Melodrama” often seem like first drafts. Of course, Ella Yelich-O’Connor will likely be regarded as one of the great young songwriters of my generation by the music historians of the future, so even her rough drafts have flashes and even sustained periods of brilliance. Yet there are too many misshapen ideas here — the ticking onomatopoeia that pervades “Homemade Dynamite,” the line “She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar,” jarringly delivered as the climax to the first verse of “Green Light” and the entire coda to “Hard Feelings/Loveless” are the most awkward — for “Melodrama” to truly live up to its (admittedly potential) hype. Jack Antonoff’s production doesn’t help — the guitarist tends to turn everything he produces into an intentionally artificial faux-80s mush, robbing the songs, and especially the piano ballads, of a lot of their dynamic range.
None of this is to say that “Melodrama” is bad — the album’s high points, mostly in its back half (“Supercut,” “Perfect Places”) are near perfect pop songs, balancing sentimentality and wit over some of Antonoff’s more inspired beats. The album’s absolute best track, though, is also its most ambitious. From its first seconds, “The Louvre,” the album’s fourth track, sets itself apart from the rest of the album in terms of its sonics. “The Louvre” is one of the few tracks on the album not produced primarily by Antonoff — instead, electronic producer Flume and Frank Ocean collaborator Malay contribute a beat that’s more epic in scope than most of the rest of the album, building from a muted rhythm guitar and Lorde’s voice to a grand instrumental coda that seems to play on a number of motifs that recur throughout the album. The lyrics are also some of the best on the album, an evocative portrayal of obsessive love built through a number of clever lyrical setups, especially in the second verse, where she sing-talks through indecision and ambivalence into the rush of love.
Yet the most interesting thing about “Melodrama” is not any individual track, no matter how great that track may be. “Melodrama” is best discussed as a messy, deeply human concept album. I’ve talked about the album with more people than any other album that’s come out this year (with the possible exception of Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.“) — not just with other music nerds but with people I’ve never really talked music with. Of course, no two people I’ve talked have agreed on the album; I’ve talked with friends whose assessments on the album ranged from masterpiece to hot mess, and I can’t say I truly disagreed with any of the points they made — even the contradictory ones. That’s the kind of album “Melodrama” is, though. It’s not a work that’s obvious in its perfection or its awfulness, not a cold product of any sort or merely a collection of well-written songs. Instead, it is so detailed and alive with the singular presence of its performer that it teeters on the brink of un-listenability. “Melodrama” is a deeply personal album (which is part of why Antonoff’s hyper-obvious production sometimes jars), which makes it all the harder to pin down.
This is all intensified by the particular personal moments that “Melodrama” captures. As a 19-year-old, listening to an album about being 19 and making a bunch of stupid decisions is a strange experience. I am not a hyper-famous New Zealander woman, so my experience as a young adult may differ from that of Lorde’s, but there are certain experiences of young love and uncertainty that sing through as universal on “Melodrama,” largely on the strength of how specific Lorde is in her use of language (though I still can’t get over that one line on “Green Light”). In fact, the only truly weak moment on the album is “Loveless,” an extended outro that’s based on a half-mocking chant talking about how we’re a “L.O.V.E.L.E.S.S generation.” It’s the one moment on the album that makes a big, purposeful stab— no matter how sardonic — at a broad generational statement, and it’s the one part of the album that doesn’t work towards that purpose. On the rest of “Melodrama,” Lorde makes those statements instead through the strongly personal, making an album that deserves all of the intense discussion it’s received.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.