Lorde – “Melodrama”

Photo Credit: Genius

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Green Light,” “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” “Perfect Places”

The first album from New Zealand singer Lorde, 2014’s wonderful instant classic “Pure Heroine,” was a bit of an anomaly. Lorde’s lyrics shadowed the fact that she was literally a teenager – they coupled the life of suburbia with the dreams of luxuries she heard about in Drake and Kanye songs. But musically, the album couldn’t have been further from what a bored teenaged pop singer usually creates. The album was a quiet blast of minimalism, with short, mild songs more in the realm of The xx than anything else. It was a refreshing turn for a young singer. But it also left people wondering whether her follow-up would try to replicate the style, or whether Lorde would grow her music.

Unsurprisingly, Lorde grew. The album’s opening track and lead single, “Green Light,” is a tongue-in-cheek look at this. The opening line, “I do my make-up in somebody else’s car,” could easily come out of a Lorde parody song, and is sung over faint piano. But within a minute the song does literally grow into a big, extremely danceable pop song. This album, in certain ways, could not sound more different than “Heroine.” While Lorde sounded comfortable in that album’s small sound, here she often sounds like she’s trying to free herself from a restraint (often successfully). “Green Light” lacks a breakdown because Lorde sings over it at the same volume she was already going at. On this album she has both more range and more bite. On “Writer in the Dark” she coolly sings “I love you till my breathing stops / I love you till you call the cops on me” over two menacingly out-of-tune piano notes. On “The Louvre,” she surrounds herself with the most orchestral music she’s made, which makes the painful quietness of immediate follow-up “Liability” all the more real.

But the best example of this newfound, punching-up attitude is found on the first half of “Hard Feelings/Loveless.” The “Hard Feelings” portion of the song expands into industrial territory – yes, industrial territory. Lorde’s vocals completely disappear for a noisy interlude that wouldn’t have felt out of place on “Pretty Hate Machine.” It’s a real punch in the gut to hear it halfway into a pop album. It’s worth noting that Lorde worked with Jack Antonoff on this album, a man who isn’t new to elevating female singers and pushing them in new directions. The album, as a whole, is far more musical than before. There are multiple songs with instrumental fade-outs and moments where Lorde gives way to the music behind her. She’s not hidden, though – she still dominates every song in her own ways.

“Melodrama” might be the most appropriately-titled album of the year. While it is taken from a song, the whole album has an umbrella of melodrama to it. Lorde, now 20, seems stuck in the same lyrical ennui that birthed her first album. But here she is more direct while also more unhinged. Gone are the references to diamonds and luxury, the metaphors and vocal inspirations taken from other genres (except the way Lorde sings the chorus in the excellent “The Louvre”) She’s bored in relationships, counting the days until it ends. She’s alone in clubs, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. “Melodrama,” even more than “Heroine,” shows the personal troubles and misunderstood complexity of being a young woman. And although she may be native to New Zealand, the general ‘stuck’ feeling throughout wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a Midwestern act. Many of the album’s songs could easily be translated into the music of a young but learned country singer.

Lorde’s growth as a singer is completely natural on this album, and it isn’t even necessarily a growth that would usually be called “maturity.” Her image was so well solidified on “Heroine” and it came off so earnestly that this album feels more like a reaction, rather than a separate entity. And on a bigger and simpler note, it also proves that Lorde isn’t going to be a one-off (not that we were particularly worried). “Melodrama” is a surprisingly well-rounded package, one that highlights and intensifies the emotions she had already conquered, while also pushing her volume and ambition levels far past what listeners were used to. A week removed from Katy Perry’s disastrous push into new ground, we get the album we might deserve – a pop singer pushing herself to the edge of her capabilities without intentionally going overboard.

-By Andrew McNally

Taylor Swift – “1989”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Out of the Woods” “Shake It Off”

Taylor Swift’s first full foray into pop music is a beautiful mess, an experimentation in something that’s never an experiment. For the most part, “1989” is standard-fare pop, behind equal parts music and vocals. Swift’s music really isn’t any different, it’s just more pop-based. It doesn’t always work, but it’s more than enjoyable enough to make up for it’s weaker moments.

“1989” plays like a typical pop album. It flows through songs upbeat and ballad, with fairly standard lyrics. Opener “Welcome to New York” is a little slow to open a pop album, but it’s got a strong synth beat and the lyrics about the country’s biggest city mark a snarky metaphorical change from small town country. The album is held up by strong synth rhythms throughout. “Style” is helped by a synth beat, as is the Imogen Heap-collaborative finale, “Clean.” And, massive smash “Shake It Off” has a pretty strong rhythm to it too.

Swift’s lyrics are pretty self-serving. She knows her audience, her lyrics pander most to pseudo-literary young women, the type of songs that are relatable to a girl in high school but have a poetic aura. If Swift’s lyrics didn’t win you over before, they probably won’t here. They’re not bad – just not for everyone. “Shake It Off” is one of her stronger songs, rallying against sexist portrayals of her relationships in the media. “Clean” marks an interesting simile between a break-up and curing addiction. But the strongest lyrical song is probably “Out of the Woods,” a track with music written by Jack Antonoff. It deals with relationships, as always, but it’s more subversive and just a little darker than listeners are used to.

What makes this album different is principle. It’s: “Hey, T Swift’s doing something kinda different,” and that works for it. Transpose these songs into a different singer’s catalog and half of them wouldn’t register any sort of response, but Swift is experimenting in conventionality. And what results is an imperfect record that feels like it wants to be imperfect. It’s cohesive and tight, and asks to be weighed as a whole instead of by individual track. It’s kind of a mess, but it succeeds because of it. It’s a fitful new direction for Swift to go in and it’s easy to forgive the mistakes.

-By Andrew McNally

Side note: This review took a while partially because I just don’t have time, but partially because I had the stream the album track by track via Tumblr. I get the marketing strategy of pulling it off Spotify but I don’t necessarily agree with it. It doesn’t sit well with fans.