Violence, intimacy and glory: the contradictory cocktail of Lorde’s Melodrama

You don’t name an album Melodrama for its restraint. 

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Violence, and the threat of it, looms large on Lorde’s latest album. Great white sharks with big teeth on “Green Light”. A drink-driving-induced car crash on “Homemade Dynamite”, leaving her and her friends “painted on the road, red and chrome, all the broken glass sparkling”. Gun fights on “Sober II”. “Liability”’s images of storms and poison.

Hovering somewhere between metaphor and warning, scenes of unnervingly specific danger litter Melodrama’s emotional landscape.

Explosions, in particular, are everywhere. The 40 instances of “boom” on “The Louvre” make it the album’s most-used word, but “blow” isn’t too far behind. “Homemade Dynamite” ripples around the refrain “Blowing shit up like homemade d-d-d-dynamite”. Its heavy drums are momentarily suspended when Lorde, almost a cappella, sings the childlike, descending line, “Now you know it’s really gonna blow”, before doing a quiet, funny impression of a detonating bomb.

On “Perfect Places”, Lorde sings “I’ll blow my brains out to the radio” – a moment of silence falls and she makes a foreboding “ch-ch” noise like a gun cocking, before the chorus kicks in.

In “The Louvre”, Lorde deliberately elides the difference between an explosion and her own heartbeat. “Can you hear the violence? Megaphone to my chest” she sings, before announcing her plans to make party music out of her own emotional eruptions: “Broadcast the boom, boom, boom, boom / And make ‘em all dance to it”.

She imagines herself as a flammable commodity in both “Liability” and “Perfect Places” – a fuse waiting to be lit, a loaded gun, an explosive ready to detonate.

If it seems a little histrionic, that is, of course, the entire point. You don’t name an album Melodrama for its restraint. In fact, the title itself lets us know, with a wink, that none of this theatrical catastrophe should be taken too literally – as she sings on “Sober II”, “We told you this was melodrama.”

Lyrically, she repeatedly undercuts the drama of disaster with vignettes of the everyday circumstances with friends and lovers that spark her internal blaze: wandering through supermarkets with a boyfriend, crying in the back of a taxi, clothes piling up on a lover’s bedroom floor, lighting a candle as a self-conscious act of self-care.

“I overthink your punctuation use”, she admits on “The Louvre”, the lyrical incarnation of a relatable Tumblr post. These pinches of salt remind us of the ordinariness of the situations that bring extraordinary emotion, the mundanity of heartbreak. “I’ll start letting go of little things till I’m so far away from you,” is the matter-of-fact close of “Hard Feelings”, and it packs as hard a punch as any of the more violent lines.

“It’s about contrast,” Lorde explained in an interview with NME, between the album’s bigger moments, and those that are “really tiny and intimate”. She can shift gears between the two so suddenly it can be disorienting – Lorde has been clear that this album is about the cocktail of feelings you race through during a single house party: “There’s that moment where a great song comes on and you’re ecstatic, and then there’s that moment later on where you’re alone in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, you don’t think you look good, and you start feeling horrible,” she explained to the New York Times Magazine.

The resulting emotional whiplash feels completely tonally appropriate for the transitional period, from late teens to early adulthood, that her album explores, when an unanswered text can feel catastrophic. “Bet you wanna rip my heart out / Bet you wanna skip my calls now” she sings with a vaguely threatening, babyish sweetness on “Loveless”, as though the two acts were essentially the same thing. “Well guess what? I’d like that.”

There’s a third mode, too, on Melodrama – a joyful, self-reflexive awareness of the glory of youth and its capacity to hold these contrasts side by side. It’s as though knowing, in the instant, what great memories these moments will make for an older self-heightens their appeal . “Green Light” revels in the straightforward feeling of release, “Supercut” memory’s ability to produce a highlight reel, “Writer in the Dark” the songwriter’s “secret power”.

Lorde isn’t afraid to aggrandise adolescence or bask in the glamour of being young (and famous), referring to herself and lovers as “rebel Top Gun pilots” and “king and queen of the weekend”. When she sings “we are young and we’re ashamed” on “Perfect Places”, she doesn’t sound ashamed at all, but proud.

Delight in contradiction propels the album forward. On the horn-spangled “Sober”, Lorde is hyperconscious of the pitfalls of partying as a distraction technique, asking over and over again, “But what will we do when we’re sober?” And yet the song reaches an ecstatic peak regardless, as she self-harmonises on the line “I’m closing my teeth around this liquor-wet lime / Midnight, lose my mind”.

Listening to Melodrama, for me, isn’t unlike the experience of doing a tequila shot: the blazing heat of the liquor, the levelling pinch of salt, the shock of the fresh, sour, green lime. Lorde’s lyrics are at their best when they combine all these threads at once. “Blow all my friendships / To sit in hell with you,” she admits on “The Louvre”, “But we’re the greatest / They’ll hang us in the Louvre / Down the back, but who cares—still the Louvre.”

The car crash in “Homemade Dynamite” ends with the smiling, ironic line, “I guess we’re partying.”

In the liner notes to Melodrama, Lorde’s conception of the album is filled with gulps and gasps. “It’s been two years of breathlessness and hunger” she writes, “a new sound, a new scene; a drink, a drumbeat. I swallowed and wrote and walked and waited. I hope you listen for every breath and broken heartstring […] It’s the greatest honour of my life, whispering these secrets into your ear.”

“Hard Feelings” ends with a sharp intake of breath. We hear Lorde inhale, as though she’s about to say something huge and significant – and the sound cuts out.

As a songwriter, Lorde seems acutely aware of the impossibility of saying everything you want to say, opting for snapshots and silences instead. But she also seems aware of the impossibility of knowing everything you’d like to know. There’s an uncertainty about the future on Melodrama that is both stomach-turning and freeing – just as, in youth, old age and death seem both utterly terrifying and strangely impossible. But whatever the future holds for Lorde, one thing feels certain: Melodrama is the work of an artist who isn’t running out of things to say any time soon.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.