One of Lorde’s favorite words to sing is “rush” — a flexible little noun that can describe a thrill, or a stress, or even the stress of feeling a thrill. Her new album, “Melodrama,” has rushes to spare. The word appears in four of 11 songs, and each time the 20-year-old lets one rip, she quickly tries to pin it down, as if auditing her own excitement. Life moves irretrievably fast when you’re young and hungry, but Lorde wants to understand how it all works, so whenever an “-ushhh” slides through her teeth, she’s applying pressure to the brakes, making a fast word go slow. Really, she’s doing what great singers do: manipulating time in hopes of better telling the truth.
Honesty isn’t the primary virtue in pop music, but we like to pretend that it is. We reflexively venerate real deals, genuine articles, three chords and the truth. We mistakenly hear authenticity in certain instruments (guitars, truthful; synthesizers, deceitful), and we’re often reluctant to parse the complexity of our own fantasies. Yes, today’s bandwidth is awash in “alternative facts,” but political falsehoods aside, why do we demand reality from our pop singers when we’re already surrounded by so much of it?
The critic James Wood describes the realism we expect from literature as “lifeness” — that is, “life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry.” If I’m understanding him correctly, it’s not that great novels feel lifelike so much as they feel alive. From there, maybe we can assert that pop singers — who do their work in the air, not on the page — have the opportunity to generate a double-lifeness, that thing that happens whenever a truthful lyric becomes a truthful sound.
Obviously, lyrics can tell a story that feels real, and the quality of the singer’s voice can reinforce that reality. Or, less obviously, it can negate it. The friction between implausible lyrics and persuasive vocalization, or vice versa, can create meaningful sparks. In fact, most songs work their magic in that clashing space. Johnny Cash didn’t really kill anyone in Reno. But when you experience one of those rare moments when a lyric and a voice slip into that sacred pocket of double-lifeness, you’re probably listening to one of popular music’s higher beings: Nina Simone, or Marvin Gaye, or John Lennon, or Sade. (Or Johnny Cash.)
Wittingly or not, Lorde took her first swing at double-lifeness with “Royals,” a breakout single from 2013 about how the diamond-encrusted revelries depicted in so many rap songs didn’t square with her reality as a teenager in New Zealand. It was disappointing that this magnetic newbie didn’t understand how American hip-hop worked, but she clearly understood something about music’s role in her own life, and her voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere deep within. It was about as low-stakes as double-lifeness gets, but it was still an achievement.
On “Melodrama” — an album that examines how love can bloom and collapse at high speeds — she fares much better, applying her most nuanced deliveries to her most evocative narrative details. She tends to hide them away in the second verse of a song, like on “Sober,” where she renders a sharp lyric about the blurriness of intoxication in breathy staccato: “I’m closing my teeth around this liquor-wet lime.” Or during “Homemade Dynamite,” where Lorde imagines a brand-new love affair culminating in a highway wreck: “We’ll end up painted on the road.” That’s a lovely description of a gruesome scene, and she airs it out in weightless falsetto. Here’s what’s especially cool: The lime is in her mouth, but the wreck is in her head, and both feel entirely real.
Songcraft this sensory and sophisticated rarely comes pouring out of a head this young — as Lorde is quick to remind us during the sweet minimalism of “Perfect Places” when she declares, “I’m 19, and I’m on fire.” That’s a little annoying, like she wants a gold star for her precociousness, and it should make us wonder whether we’ve overvalued her emotional honesty just because she wrote a lot of these tunes when she was a teen. Gee, this must be how the kids really feel about the world today. Surely, that’s infantilizing — the same way it must have been for Kate Bush and Fiona Apple, two singers whom Lorde has studied well.
Then there’s poor Taylor Swift. It’s hard to feel bad for the biggest pop star on the planet, but here we are. Lorde just moved into her neighborhood and painted the whole place blue. Jack Antonoff — one of the key collaborators on Swift’s world-eating “1989” album — is Lorde’s producer and songwriting partner on “Melodrama,” and together, they allow her voice to flood these tidy, propulsive pop songs with a pathos that’s unavailable to Swift. It works startlingly well. Everything that feels right and fluid on “Melodrama” will make you notice everything that feels wrong and stiff on “1989.”
Still, there’s no getting around that Lorde has colonized Swift’s world in lieu of creating her own. “What the f--- are perfect places, anyway?” Lorde asks in the album’s final moments, as if batting down the responsibility she had to build her own castle. But those places are always out there for the making, and she knows it. During the high-hearted zip of “Green Light,” a song that evokes the levity earned after a breakup, Lorde catches a signal in the back of her skull: “I hear sounds in my mind/Brand new sounds in my mind.” That’s encouraging. In her deepest brainspace, she hears freedom as a frequency. If she’s telling the truth, she’s still searching for it.