Review Summary: The precocious popstar delivers on the hype, and then some.
No matter how many times I hear the Lorde story, it never fails to stagger me.
In 2008, Ella Yelich-O'Connor was just another North Shore twelve-year-old. After a video of her singing at a school talent show made its way to Universal Records scout Scott Maclachlan, she was signed to the label and put on development. After a long search for the right songwriting partner, Ella met Joel Little, with whom she has stuck since. The duo wrote and recorded The Love Club EP, a set of five songs Ella uploaded onto the internet under the name “Lorde”.
That was in November last year. In just ten months, Lorde has gone from being a Year 11 student at Takapuna Grammar to one of the most celebrated and talked-about pop musicians in the world today. Her single “Royals” has become arguably the most ubiquitous song of 2013, soaring to the top of the charts around the globe; it even reached number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. The last time a female solo artist achieved that, Ella wasn't even born.
But chances are you know this story already. You've heard “Royals” and “Tennis Court” on the radio. You've seen the tweets Emma Watson, Steve Carell and Moby have posted about her. You're aware that she's (gasp) only sixteen. The reason I remind you of this is to put her debut album, the cheekily-titled Pure Heroine, into context.
Lorde has released a hugely successful and promising EP and gained overnight celebrity because of it. If she's going to stay upon her throne, she's going to need to prove to the world that getting there wasn't a fluke. She's going to have to repeat the charms of her first body of work, or else watch in horror as the hype around her quickly deflates and her fifteen minutes of fame come to an abrupt end.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, you can stop holding your breath now. Break out your headphones and that champagne, because Pure Heroine is a stunning album.
Like “Royals” before it, Pure Heroine's greatest strength is how greatly it contrasts with the rest of modern pop music. Sonically, Pure Heroine continues the darker, more experimental note The Love Club ended on with “Biting Down.” Indeed, its sparse compositions and brooding electronics put it more in line with the likes of James Blake and In Rainbows-era Radiohead than Nicki Minaj. It has a feline sense of restraint to it, seeking to hypnotise you with its melodies rather than knock you over the head with them. Though the songs themselves can lack a little in bite, they are given teeth by Lorde's razor-sharp lyrics and her ever-improving voice.
Lyrically, Lorde continues to cleverly explore and subvert the world around her, moving her criticisms of opulence onto the clichés of contemporary pop (“Team”) and the fetishization of violence (“Glory and Gore”). At points Pure Heroine becomes autobiographical, Ella delving into the surreality of her sudden fame whilst simultaneously longing for simpler times. This is a topic many pop artists struggle to touch on without sounding soppy or conceited, and yet Lorde does it with staggering sincerity. Another sixteen-year-old crooning the line “it feels so scary getting old” would sound embarrassing, and yet when Lorde does so on “Ribs”, you'll be blinking back tears.
In the face of her ravishing production and engrossing lyrics, Lorde's voice remains her greatest asset. She sings with a unique emotional hue and intensity on each track; on “400 Lux” she is confident and velveteen, on “Buzzcut Season” hopeful and ethereal, on “Glory and Gore” cynical and aggressive. It is this highly personal and diverse instrument of hers, now more than ever, that distinguishes each track. She continues to electronically experiment with her voice in exciting ways, such as pitch-bending it down to an androgynous growl on “Tennis Court” and “Team” and colourfully harmonising with herself, as on “Buzzcut Season” and the glorious “White Teeth Teens.”
Pure Heroine doesn't just meet its expectations. It decimates them. In the ten short months since the release of her EP, Lorde has written and recorded an astounding debut album, with nary a weak track nor whiff of feeling rushed. I would struggle to choose a highlight among these ten fantastic songs, so consistently does Lorde fire on all cylinders. There are lots of directions Lorde didn't take with Pure Heroine that I'd love to see her go in, but that can wait until her next album. Right now we are blessed with a rock-solid debut from a young and extremely talented kiwi girl, a debut that feels like the beginning rather than the end, a harbinger of more wonderful things to come. For a young pop star, that is a rare thing indeed.