Review Summary: Just one more hit.Pure Heroine
wastes no time in setting out its own narrative. “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?” Ella Yelich-O’Connor asks at the outset, and the rest of the record revolves around this central conceit. For an album written by a (I’m professionally obligated to say this) sixteen-year-old, Pure Heroine
is a remarkably jaded affair, as eager to dismantle the vapidity and bloated emptiness of pop culture as it is to ponder the seemingly eternal state of affairs that is being a teenager. It was fascinating to hear that Lorde dismissed Katy Perry’s offer to open for her on Perry's world tour even before “Royals” ascended to its current, lofty perch in Billboard
. Listening to Pure Heroine
, it’s not as much of a shock, although not for any lack of trying. This path for Lorde, as much as Universal may wish you to think otherwise, has been laid for a while now. Privileged natural talent from a relatively remote corner of the planet hones craft throughout childhood; wows major label A&R rep at age twelve; turns down platinum pop star to firmly establish her self-reliant bona fides while simultaneously taking a wrecking ball to the charts. The sound, of course, has helped in this regard. Producer Joel Little wonderfully fleshes out Lorde’s lyrics and soulful lower register with a deft and light touch, sliding its minimal brand of electro-pop fitting nicely alongside 2013’s other pop malcontents, your glitch beats and serrated R&B edges, your AlunaGeorge, your Charli XCX. Pure Heroine
is by no stretch of the imagination a groundbreaking record. Yet it surpasses its peers not on its sonic pleasures, however alternatively insistent or recycled they may be, but on the singular force of its artist’s striking personality.
The trope of artist as outsider is nothing new. Lorde has the cachet and an unvarnished life experience to speak to the kind of moody disaffection many feel in regards to the modern pop palette and not come off as totally hypocritical. Using the term “life experience” in the context of a sixteen-year-old may have the average pop demographic turning the dial with a smirk, but there’s something about Pure Heroine
that refuses to date itself, to tie itself to a yearbook or errant hormones. Lorde is in a somewhat troubling position to take aim at the materialism that runs rampant in Western culture, having been immersed in status since she was born. But where an artist like Lana del Rey reveled in that opulence and banality with batted eyelashes and layers upon layers of subtext, Lorde is blessedly direct in her disillusionment and her desire to make a clean break rather than subvert. “Royals” is a whip-smart rebuttal to pop excess, and it’s alright as the biting satire it so clearly wishes to be, ratcheting up the symbols and gold-plated trifles with the subtlety you’d expect from a teenager. It’s also the weakest, most obvious track here, a heat-seeking missile of a song that shows Lorde’s hand far too quickly. No, Pure Heroine
is at its best when Lorde’s acerbic wit focuses less on her status as an "outsider" and more on Yelich-O’Connor, the Auckland teenager still getting her feet wet in life.
For those who know Lorde only from the press or “Royals,” this is a bit of a paradox. It’s easy to turn the cheek when listening to someone complain about a relationship or the stresses of youth, particularly if that person is a worldwide star before they can legally buy a drink. No one wants to be preached to by someone whom they can’t relate with. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the heartbreaking wistfulness at the center of a track like “Ribs,” or the contemplating of a precarious relationship on “400 Lux,” because Lorde takes us right there with her. Her voice, worn beyond its years, and that spartan Little production, all skittish drum beats and ephemeral synths, makes us feel what we, too, felt at that age: drives in packed cars passing around the flask, the laughter and the hurt feelings, the kind of kinetic energy that crackles in backyards and furtive parties and the rustle of tight clothing and seems so goddamn vital it’s surely never going away. Youth is forever, right?
It’s that vital connection between Lorde’s present-day ruminations and the uncanny way her music hits on such a fundamental level with all that dirty, romanticized nostalgia that makes Pure Heroine
such a success beyond "Royals'" ostensible aim of looking down its nose at the Miley Cyruses and Taylor Swifts of the world. The record carries a bittersweet tone and a heavier fog of a mood, a realization that this is a fleeting portrait of a time that has already, irrevocably greyed as it’s put on record. Lorde writes what she knows, and writes it well, but what sets her apart from her peers is the unspoken realization that this a time she will never get back again, that the town she’s so ready to leave on “Tennis Court” may already be a scrapbook in her memory. The friendship smoldering at the center of “Team” and the airy, crippling codependence on display in “Buzzcut Season” are typical subjects for a young pop star, but the way Lorde manages these stereotypes into something real and true – the sunny bounce of “Buzzcut” contrasting with the paralyzing fear of something new, the resignation bubbling beneath the mammoth chorus on “Team” – is her greatest accomplishment. It’s easy to evoke the insecurity and the foolishness and the small-world majesty of youth. It’s another thing entirely to garner a sympathetic ear from your listeners for it along with a glimmer of recognition or, even better, a longing.
closes things with a jagged reflection of millennial angst on “A World Alone,” its jittery synths and pensive guitar line a neat encapsulation of Lorde’s nervous “We’re biting our nails, you’re biting my lip.” It’s the most seamless marriage between Lorde the pop culture black comic and Yelich-O’Connor the vulnerable teenager, frustrated at “all the double-edged people in schemes” who “make a mess, then go home and get clean,” but fully aware of the inevitability of a reckoning. She could be commenting on the mind-melting void of MTV and the grinding apparatus that has made her its third-quarter darling, or to the “million bad habits” her and her peers willingly inflict on themselves. “Maybe the Internet raised us, or maybe people are jerks,” Lorde sings, a shockingly frank (by now, of course, not shocking at all) perspective on youth, all its adrenaline highs and idiot lows. It’s refreshing and painfully honest, and it works so well because you never feel like Lorde is feeding you a line of bullshit
. Pure Heroine
has its faults, and Lorde will be hard pressed to capture this sort of emotional intimacy with such unfailing clarity again. That’s fine, of course – as the end of “A World Alone” makes clear, she is perfectly content riding things out on her own terms: “Let them talk.”