The most hilarious conspiracy theory of the 21st century so far might be the “Lorde truther” movement — those folks who were convinced the upstart singer was a full-fledged adult, not a mere prodigy of 16, when she recorded her 2013 breakout, “Pure Heroine.” In this case, at least, the production of a birth certificate finally quelled the rumors. But the belief spoke to just how effective she was in assuming the role of old soul: If the tag “world’s oldest teenager” was coined for Dick Clark, it really belonged to this platinum, preternaturally world-weary sensation.
But she was so much older then; she’s younger than that now. Lorde acts her age on “Melodrama,” the great weird-pop album 2017 has been waiting for. She spent a lot of that debut album on the outside of young life looking in, adopting a slightly scolding persona she recently wryly referred to as “library girl.” For this four-years-later follow-up, it’s not as if she just chucked all that maturity, but she’s at least wandering in and out of the party, and alternating between fretful and frisky, just like any good 20-year-old should. “Melodrama” is still a predominantly serious record, as the title winkingly suggests, but its lighter moments are also seriously fun — and the whole thing is so good that it makes that precocious first album seem like child’s play.
Lorde and her new producer/co-writer, Jack Antonoff (of Bleachers, Fun and Taylor Swift co-writing fame), have structured “Melodrama” as sort of extended internal debate on whether she should mourn the loss of her first love, and all the idealism that went with that, or move on and embrace the pleasures of singleness and serial dating. Depending on when you tune in to the dialogue, it’s either a deeply sad breakup album or unrepentantly playful post-breakup record. It’s all wrapped up in the overture, “Green Light,” in which Lorde admits she “can’t let go” even as the house beat drifting in and out of the song suggests the green light she’s waiting for in order to get on with her life is to be found in the refraction of a nearby disco ball.
“Sober” is a flashback to the last stages of that lost relationship, when lover still feel there “ain’t a pill that can touch our rush” but — red flag, kids! — “Jack and Jill get f—ed up and possessive when they get dark.” In “Homemade Dynamite,” that Jack is history and Jill is trying on a newfound flirtiness for size, telling a prospect, “Don’t know you super-well but I think you might be the same as me/ Behave abnormally,” and she even imagines getting into a car crash with this new crush after the soiree: “All the broken glass sparkling/ I guess we’re partying.” One of the revelations of “Melodrama” is that Lorde can actually be pretty funny — not just there, but in the following song, “The Louvre,” in which she interrupts some fantasies of romantic grandiosity to admit to her new guy, “I overthink your punctuation use.” Lorde, you are our type of gal.
If it ever feels like Lorde is shedding her witchy-woman persona altogether in favor of getting in touch with her sexy side, fear not — there’s still some heartbreak to come as she realizes she hasn’t gotten over kid A yet after all. “These are what they call hard fee-ee-eelings,” she announces, drawing out the syllables half-tragically and half-cheekily, informing her ex that not all is amicable after all. “Writer in the Dark” announces her intention to get her revenge by chronicling the relationship in song, sounding like she’s taking her cues from pal Taylor Swift as she excoriates a jealous guy who “hated hearing my name on the lips of a crowd,” even though she “did my best to exist just for you.” Even here, she can’t resist adding some comic grandiosity as her naturally low voice suddenly rises octaves to become a Kate Bush-level siren sound: “I love you till my breathing stops/ I love you till you call the cops on me.”
Having invoked Swift and Bush, it now behooves us to mention another pure heroine of Lorde’s, Robyn (she and Antonoff have covered the great Swedish songstress’ “Hang With Me” live). This album’s cathartic mini-masterpiece —and its late-arriving 11:00 number, to put it in Broadway terms, since the album is sequenced so theatrically — is “Supercut,” in which Lorde becomes such a dead ringer for Robyn, you imagine her turning platinum blonde before your very ears. That house rhythm that was teased at in the opening “Green Light” returns in a bigger and more consistent way as Lorde runs through a selective edit of her internal video of the relationship that got away. There are still a couple of tracks to go after that — a quick acoustic reprise and a more quietly anthemic closing number — but the album has already climaxed in glorious fashion, as Lorde finally decides there’s no shame in failing to let it go.
As accomplished as “Pure Heroine” was, there wasn’t much breathing room in its hermetically sealed electronic beats. Taking over the producer’s chair from Joel Little, Antonoff isn’t any more eager to bring a full band in — and there may not be a live drum anywhere on the album — but the sheer amount of acoustic piano he’s figured into the mix makes a difference, whether it’s the entire basis of the ballad “Liability” or used just for introductory or interpolative texture on other tracks. Even when the album is deep into pure programming mode, there’s more inventiveness. And he’s big on dynamics within a song, taking away heavy syncopation just as suddenly as he added it, or egging Lorde on to add a pre-pre-chorus to a pre-chorus — the sort of fun fillips that keep the songs feeling refreshed, if not always as strictly radio-friendly as they could be.
If “Melodrama” sometimes feels like the artsier version of “1989,” there are plenty of reasons why that wouldn’t be an accident, from the fact that Lorde has a mutual admiration thing going with her fellow pop royal to Antonoff having produced three songs on Swift’s emo-bubblegum triumph. What we really have here, though, is two young women who’ve both gotten a lot better at embracing all the mixed emotions of feeling happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time. And with “Melodrama,” the best modern-pop album of 2017 so far, Lorde has taken a particularly big record-to-record leap. Will album 3 represent as significant a jump as album 2… and maybe take less than four years to do it? As James Comey might say: Lorde, I hope so.