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I first heard Lorde driving down the M6 one dreary Lancastrian day. The radio was crackling indecisively when the ultra-cool nonchalance of Royals cut through the incessant rain. Tapping unconsciously on the dashboard I imagined the owner of the smoky vocals to be twenty-something, living in a Manhattan loft and sipping Jack. In reality, Lorde, or Ella Yelich-O’Connor, is seventeen and lives with her parents in Auckland. The mane of brown curls, moody black-lined eyes and eclectic thrown-on style with which she has become synonymous, camouflage the singer’s surprising youth. It’s not every high-schooler who can claim a number 1 single, top 50 album and Rolling Stones cover in their CV. With the release of her first EP The Love Club in March 2013, Lorde caught the music world with her witty, lyrical anthems. With Royals going global, critics quickly honed in on the small-town singer-songwriter, spouting predictions of inordinate success for her debut album.
The highly anticipated Pure Heroine was released in September 2013, achieving number one status in both New Zealand and Australia. The album has a certain poetic rawness and unlike her contemporaries Lorde’s lyrics are unstained by teenage egoism. She draws on familiar experiences and notions but relays them to her audience inclusively, without creating a clichéd and isolate dialogue between a ‘you’ and an ‘I’.
The album opens to the satire of Tennis Court, an anti-materialistic anthem. Lorde mocks the superficiality of high school stereotypes and chastises a social structure built on appearances. It’s social commentary set to the thud of a pendulum beat. Despite its moderate tempo it’s catchy, and although it’s difficult to imagine blaring on a dance floor, Tennis Court is ideal chill out music. The pace also gives a well-deserved emphasis to Lorde the poet. A self declared lover of Sylvia Plath and a literature connoisseur, her lyrics would look as comfortable bound in a poetry anthology as they sound to the ear. The ambiguities of her songs give a refreshing change to the simplistic bubble-gum pop lyrics that so often frequent the radio waves.
An obvious stand out track is Royals, the very song that propelled Lorde from obscurity in her first EP. Its seduction is evident from the opening bars; her signature synth beat overlaid by rich, haunting vocal. The arrangement is simple, but oh-so effective. Lyrically, the song portrays a restless dissatisfaction towards the luxury and opulence with which chart music is strewn. It seems to re-appropriate an air of swagger from the super-rich minority back to the ordinary everyman listener. While Lorde’s lyrical genius is almost faultless, the middle of the album seems to collapse into a lull. Despite the rapturous choruses, the monotone and repetitive verses of Ribs seem to blur into the sluggish tempo of Buzzcut Season. The faster pace of Glory and Gore provides a momentary awakening, but this is short-lived when preceded by the Lana-Del-Ray-imitation melancholy of Still Sane.
A World Alone provides a welcome relief as a rousing final anthem. Ending on a restless, us-against-the-world image seems all too appropriate for the unconventional lyricist. The rhythm skips between tempos and it seems rather apparent that this variety was sadly absent in the previous tracks. Pure Heroine seems to hang upon the strength of Tennis Court, Royals and the finale of A World Alone in order to sustain the material in-between. There’s no question that Lorde is an inordinately skilled wordsmith, but she has not yet consistently mastered how best to showcase her words to music. At the age of 17 though, it seems only a matter of time.