After declaring that she’d never be royal on what is still her biggest and best single, Lorde has spent the run-up to her second album Melodrama testing out the feel of a crown on her head. Expectations are infinitely higher this time around, and each of the three songs we’ve heard so far aims for someplace close to the pop zeitgeist. “Green Light,” for all the Kate Bush-style vocal filigree of its chorus, has a glossy surface sheen that was absent from Pure Heroine; “Liability” channels radio-dominating heartsick piano ballads like “All of Me” and “Someone Like You”; “Perfect Places” is a straight-up Jack Antonoff anthem. These songs have their charms–the great “Green Light” especially–but it would be nice to hear Lorde follow her muse without the pressure of crafting a hit, as she did as an unknown songwriter making her first record.
“Sober,” the second song on Melodrama and fourth single, comes pretty close. From the opening seconds, it’s clear that this is something stranger than what we’ve heard thus far: some viscous keyboard chords that recall James Blake in his CMYK era, a looping snippet of unintelligible vocals. Then, in comes the crisp, minimal percussion that characterized so much of Pure Heroine, but with a slyly 2017 twist. Instead of siphoning the snappy stutter of 2000s Atlanta hip-hop, as she did on “Royals,” she gives her artful take on the dancehall/house hybrid that animates so much of the radio today. “I’m acting like I don’t see / Every ribbon you use to tie yourself to me,” she sings, deliberately vague about whether she’s enjoying the forced proximity to whomever it is she’s singing about.
After the sonic maximalism of “Green Light” and “Perfect Places,” it’s exciting to hear Lorde return to the kind of sparse and considered arrangement she navigates so deftly. More than a simple retread of Pure Heroine, “Sober” instead uses Lorde’s new resources as a bona-fide pop star to electrify her old aesthetic. The production is immaculate throughout, and the space in the mix allows each new element to briefly command the whole of your attention. Lorde harmonizes and sings in conversation with herself, punctuating lines with staccato blasts of backing vocals or stacking her voice until it’s three or four Lordes high. In the chorus, a drippy synthetic horn sound arrives from somewhere in the musical uncanny valley. Is it the sound of a real instrument, or was it cooked up inside of someone’s laptop?
My only quibble with “Sober” is that it isn’t particularly hooky, lacking the lab-tested firepower of the recent singles or the subtler melodic guile of “Royals.” The Melodrama material we’ve heard so far has underperformed in terms of chart position, and it’s likewise hard to imagine “Sober” lighting up the radio. That’s not such a bad thing, though, because unlike “Green Light” and “Liability,” this song doesn’t aspire to take over the world. “Sober” isn’t trying to be anything other than itself.