In the most shredded moment off Lorde’s new record, Melodrama, she sounds nearly defeated. It’s just four words, the opening line of “Liability,” the second single off her sophomore album, and arguably the best bit of songwriting of her entire, still-brief career. It almost sounds like a throwaway line, but really, it’s the crux of the whole record. Strip everything else on the record away, and this remains, an impenetrable thesis: Baby really hurt me.
Tenderness is a finicky currency. I called him baby because he was, and because I wanted him to be, and because I was, too. How could someone so soft and innocent become an agent of so much pain? He knew the texture of my breath, but not what changed its cadence. He knew the shape of my body, but not the rhythm of my heart. Still, he loved me, so deep and pure, utterly sure, from the first day we touched; we were completely guileless, willfully oblivious, too eager and too certain, foregone conclusions out of the mouths of babes.
The most foolish love is always the sweetest, a rush like the suck of a lime slice, teeth grinning sour juice and salt. I was disappointed the first time you said I love you. I wasn’t sure yet, but I trusted your instinct over my own. I hope our kids have your eyes, you whispered mid-kiss, in my bed, in that ridiculous, beautiful loft, long before we’d ever f*cked. When I told you I’d never done that, it didn’t even faze you; that’s just something else we can share, you said. So we shared that, and everything else — my whole city and my whole heart — for almost two years. Soon, we would pay in colors of anger and neon. You were the whole world until you were nothing. God, it was all so dramatic. I was rereading my telling of it and I cried fresh, or in continuation, thinking, five years removed, I can’t believe I went through all that. I think that’s how Lorde will feel, in 2022, listening to her pain on Melodrama.
At a listening party in New York City, when Lorde played “Liability” someone in the crowd began sobbing. A friend, who was there, told me Lorde went directly to the crier, and held them while they wept, held them until they stopped. Has anyone ever done this for you? You did this for me so many nights. I bet you saved my life. I almost never think of you now, the sweet western sky has a way of obliterating my humid memories of the east. You were my dream of New York, and you turned my city into a nightmare. What the f*ck are perfect places, anyway? We won’t have any kids with my eyes, and you’re not what you thought you were, baby. Neither was I.
Every breakup song, good or bad, boils down to this: What’s the next move after the warm, safe harbor of someone else’s heart becomes icy and impenetrable foreign waters? Coming to terms with the liability of a lost lover for the first time, our heroine Ella is utterly bereft — in a taxi no less, the loneliest or loveliest New York public space, depending. She goes home alone, but, rather miraculously, finds a hand to caress her cheek — her own. She needs, and receives, the tenderness. I care for myself the way I used to care about you, she sings later, on “Hard Feelings.” Eventually, everybody’s baby learns to take care of themselves; the final transaction of a teenage heart.
Lorde is a strange woman, but she’s also like any woman I know. I call her a woman deliberately, as she has herself, christening Melodrama as the distillation of her first adult experience — one of extreme romantic pain. Although this album is a singular feat, the narrative is all-too familiar for the female heart in the public space. So, it seems, is the coming-of-age story of every girl, woman and femme; men are a cross, a boulder rolled up a hill, eternally, a punishment, a padlock, a lesson, a loss — oh, are they ever a loss. They take parts of us and don’t look back. They leave us when we need them most. They possess us, then betray us, then destroy us. These are the narratives I hear told by the women I love most, again and again. In the most painful of times, men are monsters who purposefully abuse us. They are never punished, but maybe in pop songs we keep the criminal record that justice won’t.
Thankfully, abuse is not the story of Melodrama, but Lorde is no stranger to the way others, men in particular, may, or have tried to, control her. If she’s not immune, she’s at least inoculated, there are few moments — on tape at least — where she sounds powerless, no matter the pain she may be in. “If you change a breath on a vocal take, she’ll notice, and she’ll like it or she’ll hate it,” Jack Antonoff, her primary collaborator on the record, said in Rolling Stone. “It’s a meticulous process with her, and this particular album was an intense journey. I think that’s what it had to be.”
Last week I talked about one of the most un-self-aware pop stars in the world. Lorde is just the opposite, she might be the most self-aware person on earth. She thinks of everything, from the magnificently stuttered “p-punctuation” her text analysis of a new lover on “The Louvre,” to the hidden barely-there “baby” breathed in between “Hard Feelings” and “Loveless.” (3:41, you’re welcome). I imagine I’ll discover moments like these for the next several years, listening to the album and finding new flourishes every time.
Melodrama is utterly time-specific, but do not misread its confines as the narrow or shallow. Understand: You will never be able to divorce this album from the way pop sounded at the end of Lorde’s teenager years. It’s a eulogy and a benediction for pop in 2017, bestowed by its highest priestess. Lorde pledged her fealty to the sacredness of pop in The New York Times but it’s on tape that these incantations are realized. No pop record this year will top it, apologies to Taylor, who will still try. If you think this album is about careless teenage partying, then you’ve never seen the bleak desperation where the most dead-eyed partying takes place; partying is about grief, about wanting to obliterate yourself, wanting to be touched. Rihanna told us about finding love in a hopeless place, but Lorde is still there, looking for traces of mercury vapor.
Listening to Melodrama is like meeting eyes across the party, every song is somebody’s baby, a girl with the lights coming up in her eyes. Every chorus is familiar, the lightning-jolt of an entire future, the cat’s cradle of a new heart to puzzle over, the tangled mess on the other side. She calls it one long house party in concept, which falls apart at times and holds up at others. Why bother describing them as anything other than wild and fluorescent, the language she gives us herself on “Supercut”? If you’re interested in performance prose about the sounds of Melodrama, those two words sum it up. I am interested in something else. Did you know you can ruin somebody? Did you know they can ruin you? She doesn’t sugarcoat any of it, either. The iridescent husk of a broken heart beats inside every song on Melodrama, cocoons of violently failed loves. Even when they hang in jagged bits, a technique ingested from Kanye and Justin and James and Frank, these snippets are universes unto themselves.
Sometimes, I think the only things of any real value on this planet come from broken hearts. Sometimes, I think about how long it took you to break mine. Melodrama is a symphony of dirty memories, the kind most of us can’t bear to share out loud, except, rarely, to our very dearest friends. That is, if they didn’t scatter in the aftermath and power games involved in two important hearts splintering apart. Every heart is important, but Lorde lets hers reign supreme, the queen of the weekend, like I used to be. (In my head I do everything right.) Everything is so easy to feel when you’re twenty. I wonder if I can ever love anyone as much as I tried to love you? I can’t really tell if I’m talking about New York or him when I write that. They feel inseparable. That’s why I left. Hard feelings.
Though Lorde’s own memories of love come from cleaner, quieter places, this record was made in New York, the only jungle-city on earth where it could’ve been made. No other city is big enough for the sheer size of these feelings. I read some of the other early reviews critiquing her maximalism and laughed. Cackled. Most hearts the size of Lorde’s find their way to New York City before too long, where there is no “too much.” Lorde hid in diners and hotels, holed up on subways and bridges, folded herself into the shadows and history of New York, nursed her wounds in the musk and the mysticism, healed herself in a decaying city full of enormous hearts. Then she gave us this strange elixir, wild and fluorescent. It’s not a medicine, it’s an exposition.
Melodrama may be the saddest record of the year, and perhaps that’s why she undercut the pain with a snide title. The album is luscious, thick with grief, humid, spacious, pulsing. It decays and rebuilds, it tastes like rotting meat. There’s a moment in American Hustle when the protagonist Irving Rosenfeld’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld, played beautifully by Jennifer Lawrence, describes the feeling of betrayal as a smell: “It’s like that perfume that you love, that you can’t stop smelling even when there’s something sour in it.” That’s Melodrama, and godd*mmit if that isn’t New York City.
Half of Melodrama’s elegant, filigreed pop darkness come from the instrument of Ella herself. Not even her proper singing voice, but manipulated samples of her voice, reconstructed and scattered like peacock feathers, blowing up choruses like fireworks, dancing into the night like sparklers; meaningless, but bright anyway. Like the painting of Lorde on her pillow that graces the cover, Melodrama is night drawn in the right colors to become illuminated. The singer’s much-lauded synaesthesia must exist in half her most avid listeners, I swear I can see midnight blue on both “Sober” and its part two, “Liability” and its reprise are sunset-colored, fading and brilliant in turns. She uses the texture of a breath, the rattle of a sob, and the euphoria of the self traced complete in another’s touch to gives us her own supercut, a director with the voice of a pop star.
There are some missteps, but they are as fierce as the rest of it, like the brooding but often cringe-inducing chorus on “The Louvre,” or a few throwaway sound effects like the “boom” dynamite on “Homemade Dynamite,” an otherwise perfect pop song, partially courtesy of a Tove Lo co-write. But like Kanye’s sneering “Famous” line, or Drake’s ever-present corniness, these campy missteps become as much a part of Melodrama‘s dance and draw as anything else. Even, in some ways, mirroring Lorde’s own physical, half-formed flailing, a much-beloved part of her live show. Who would trade her arm flaps for ballerina steps, stiff choreography or Beyonce precision? None of us. Like any great love, the mistakes are all part of it. When I learned she ignored Max Martin’s advice for the structure of “Green Light,” it felt a more important moment in pop than anything that man has ever touched. No more rolling the stone up that hill, there are other paths to explore.
I believed this would be an album for the ages when “Liability” hit, that none of our hearts were safe. But nothing could prepare me for the scope of Melodrama. When she sang “Liability” that night before Coachella, at Pappy + Harriet’s, I couldn’t even do my job, couldn’t even be in the crowd. I ran away, sat and sobbed alone in the bathroom, jammed in a stall, closing my teeth around a liquor-wet lime, unsure who or what I was crying over, what iteration of my heartbreak this song taps into. Maybe it’s that I can’t get me to do the work of loving me; maybe my heart is still a teenager after all. So the next day, I went and f*cked someone else to prove I could — but I never could. He didn’t even try to look at my heart, and I didn’t ask. I fell in love with him anyway.
I wrote a million other ways in, but the only thing I can compare Melodrama to is falling in love with you. Forgive me, because most people reading this have already applied the framework of the album to their own broken heart like a sticky salve, letting it soak into the really deep parts, the ones that still bleed sometimes on the wrong (or right) nights. Forgive me, because the only way out is through, and though I’m long past the drama, I’m still looking for a way out. Every breakup album seems like a skeleton key. I don’t want you back, but like Lorde, I want my first love to live forever. Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark.
In LA, I am beginning to feel possible again. I wear a different perfume. It’s called “You Or Someone Like You.” It smells wild and fluorescent. I am here working on the only love I haven’t messed up. I wonder if you’ve grown up too, or if we’re both still just kids.