Lorde's 'Pure Heroine' Is Awash in (Possibly Fake) Teen-Pop-Star Ennui

6
Pure Heroine
Critical Mass
Release Date: October 1, 2013
Label: Universal

by Maura Johnston

Pop music is a young person's game, which is why one of the greatest compliments that can be paid to an up-and-comer is that she or he is "only 16." American Idol judges reserve such praise for those singers whose interpretive skill goes beyond their years. Justin Bieber got a lot of "Hey, he's a real musician" condescension when he showed off his drum prowess back in 2011.

Which brings us to Lorde, the brooding New Zealander (born Ella Yelich-O'Connor) who zoomed into the pop world this summer with her leftfield hit "Royals," and who is, indeed, 16 years old. The spare, downtempo track, currently at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, is easily compared to the work of Lana Del Rey; indeed, the Born to Die singer's much-buzzed-about depictions of millennial excess were apparently a chief inspiration, as were the nu-Gilded Age boasts of Kanye West and Jay Z's Watch the Throne.

But where Del Rey's music is weird despite itself, with its Twin Peaks signifiers and awkwardly deployed baby-talk seductions, the minimalism of "Royals" sounds unfinished — snaps and ghostly harmonies dart around, nervously awaiting a remix. Yet lyrically, it recalls Kreayshawn's irritating surprise 2011 hit "Gucci Gucci," with its sing-a-long chunkiness designed so listeners can trill played-out tropes of "success" ("Jet planes / Islands / Tigers on a gold leash") in unison with Lorde, even though the rest of the song implicitly places her —and her beloved — above trifling materialism. It's the pop equivalent of hiding a secret message in a yearbook quote.

Lorde's natural register is low, and it rests comfortably in the sumptuous beats crafted by producer Joel Little on her debut full-length, Pure Heroine; on tracks like the sunnily apocalyptic "Buzzcut Season," her voice escapes into a higher, airier place. The music is more girl-in-the-corner than a lot of the other material surrounding "Royals" on the radio, where a narcotized tastefulness persists, executed via pulsing beats and politely deployed synths. (As for the Lana Del Rey comparisons, which are inevitable if unfair to both sides due to the aforementioned surreality deficit, the connection is made plain on the friendship-in-ruins "Team," with a sumptuous chorus that echoes that of "Born to Die.")

If nothing else, the music is aggressively okay (there's coiled-spring potential in the crackling, anxious "White Teeth Teens"). But its overall unspecialness undercuts Pure Heroine's devotion to playing both sides of Lorde's "only 16" coin — from the double-entendre title on down. Ultimately, it's hard not to view her age as some sort of clumsy ploy. There's a seeming mandate for each track to have at least one wink-and-nod moment where Lorde reminds the listener that she's an actual sullen teen, brunette mane and all — the Daria to Icona Pop's Quinn, the Veronica Sawyer to Katy Perry's Heather Chandler. "I'm kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, so there," she sings on "Team"; then that line is followed by the declaration, "I’m kinda older than I was when I reveled without a care." Then again, a month can seem like an eternity when you're young — even if you fancy yourself wise beyond your years.

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