Pop music, by definition, wants to be popular. Simply on that basis, Lorde has to be judged a spectacular success. At the time of writing, the New Zealand star, born Ella Yelich-O’Connor, has the top-selling single on the US iTunes store and has just taken the No 1 slot on the US Billboard Hot 100 from Miley Cyrus, leapfrogging Katy Perry, while further below her hover current singles by Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey. She offers a credible and refreshing alternative to all of them.
The strongest tracks on Pure Heroine, her debut album, are as addictive as anything her competitors have in their supplies. With collaborator Joel Little, she has constructed songs in which attractive melodies flow into choruses that have colossal hooks yet don’t feel as though they have been pumped with the sonic equivalent of steroids, like a Cyrus or Perry hit.
In part, that is down to Little’s minimalist production style. Favouring thick drone-y synthesiser tones and repetitive, clickety percussion loops, the music has some of the neutral, muted feel of downbeat electronica. Taking his cue from hip-hop, he trusts the singer as storyteller rather than using the music to instruct the listener in what to feel. The effect is cool, not corny.
As a vocalist, Lorde has a variety of modes, yet she is most comfortable in her lower range, where her natural huskiness has real character and her melodies take on the cadences of conversation. Her lyrics combine contemporary teen-speak with poetic imagery that, at its best, is startling in its maturity.
But most significantly, Lorde projects a persona that is distinct from anyone else currently in the chart game. Part of it is her extreme youth (she will be 17 in November), something she sometimes refers to in song. But more important is the way her songs portray a free thinker, immune to the prescriptions of parents, media or – for that matter – pop.
There is the character in Royals, declaring proudly that she and her friends will never have the material trappings they have been taught to covet, and are just as happy without them. In an age when so many stars are like emblems of excess, the sentiment is almost subversive. And it is reprised in Team, when she sings: “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen, not very pretty but we sure know how to run free.” Her characters ride buses, not Cadillacs.
Lorde’s songs are also unusual in the way they evoke a sense of community and camaraderie. When you see Cyrus in her recent video, naked and alone, swinging from the chain of a wrecker’s ball, the image is joyless (if ridiculous). Likewise Del Rey, beholden in each new song to some bad boy straight out of Central Casting.
By contrast, Lorde is focused on fun (“even when we’re smiling out of fear”), and it is not the kind that is dependent on male approval. The nearest she comes to a typical love song is A World Alone, the final and most conventionally upbeat track. But for most of the album she seems to be singing about the ordinary things that occupy her and her teenage peers, bringing to them a kind of nobility.
It is no Photoshopped picture. “White teeth teens”, as she calls them, are out. The characters in her songs bite their nails. They drink and throw up and get into fights and sometimes even wind up in bed together. They are bored and restless, reckless and terrified, but they also experience wonder, laughter and ambition, and all of it just seems to make them stronger. Pure Heroine? Not so pure, perhaps, but a fitting enough title.
PURE HEROINE, Lorde (Universal).