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Review: Lorde Is a Visionary in the Dark on Melodrama

“Every decision that we made for this album, every sound we choose, every word we chose, it was so deliberated—for every word we chose, I thought of three other options and why it shouldn’t be those words,” Lorde told Rookie’s Tavi Gevinson recently. If you doubt her—and you might when she rhymes, “I know about what you did and I want to scream the truth / She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar” on the very first song, “Green Light”—you’re only making it hard on yourself. Melodrama, Lorde’s new album, embodies a strange, studious undoneness, the blacklight black-and-blue of a perfectionist trying to capture imperfect feelings. Accept its odd phrasings and vast negative spaces and Lorde’s sophomore effort reveals itself dark and glorious.

Everything about Melodrama, from its long gestation period to its dramatic artwork, demonstrate Lorde’s determination not to squander her creative freedom. She was always a remarkable singer, but the smoky, slightly hoarse warmth of her maturing voice immediately sets the new material apart from rivals, and from her 2013 debut Pure Heroine. She taps new energies, never to greater effect than on “Writer in the Dark,” where a reverent, Kate Bush-inspired “I’ll find a way to be without you, babe” lands like a great tragedy. She’s added a collaborator and co-producer in Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, and while his pop instincts are unbearable as a solo act, Lorde draws out his kineticism without the hollow pomposity. The only song Antonoff didn’t touch, “Homemade Dynamite,” sounds like a continuation of Heroine’s sparse sonics and teenage insouciance.

There’s no “Royals” on Melodrama. Lorde still sings into precise beds of self-harmonies, still loves a blown-out beat, but she’s eclipsed her old sound. Her writerly voice is unmistakable, and the person behind it is now a global star and not an unassuming teenager. Of course an artist whose life now operates through a series of business contracts turned the word “Liability” into a poetic meditation on the perils of intimacy. The imagery of Lorde home alone, slow dancing on her own, is some of the album’s most beautiful.

Like the all-night house party it’s modeled on, Melodrama swoons halfway. The pacing is palindromic, bookended by “Green Light” and “Perfect Places,” the biggest and shiniest singles. Just within their ring are the fluorescent, romantic “The Louvre” and “Supercut”; beyond them lie the tender lyricism of “Liability” and “Writer”; at the center is a black hole of raw, knotty emotion. Nowhere does Melodrama sound more ragged than on “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” a two-faced puzzle that creaks through its experimental instrumental, tick-tocks like the White Rabbit, chases a sample of Paul Simon’s speaking voice with an Antonoff rip of the drum fill from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” and closes as Lorde chants, “We’re l-o-v-e-l-e-s-s generation,” a sketch of a hook in search of a hit.

Still, the album’s weirder moments glint like diamonds in the rough. There’s something to love on every song, even the misfortunate “Loveless” (it’s when she sings, “Cause I’m gonna mess your life up / Gonna want to tape my mouth shut” in a breathy candy-rap). The marvelous “The Louvre” turns on an untethered anti-chorus, but time almost stops every time Lorde quips, “They’ll hang us in the Louvre / Down the back, but who cares, still the Louvre.” “Supercut” feels a little sterile, like one of Taylor Swift’s Polaroid-perfect love songs, but halfway through the music nearly drops out, and Lorde giggles, or chokes, and belts out the two best lines with a muscular power.

It’s hard to imagine another pop star who’d use that take, and it’s clear that Lorde is dying to show you her process. Her zeitgeist is the age she’s living right now. As personal as Melodrama’s details are, her words remind me again and again of things I wrote at 19 or 20—memories of bedroom dancing and grocery runs, the astonishment of your first really big city, mundanity inscribed with the thrill and luxury of giving oneself over to heartbreak. I’m older and my memories are fading, but I know there are perfect places, because Lorde makes them sound real.