Melodrama? Smell-O-Rama more like, according to GARY STEEL. Witchdoctor’s resident curmudgeon finds fault with Lorde’s ‘universally acclaimed’ second album.
The most compelling evidence I’ve seen for Melodrama so far has been the reaction of my 2.9-year-old daughter to ‘Green Light’, or more specifically, the calculatedly explosive, celebratory chorus of its first single and opening song. She literally lit up, sending out a beaming smile, and started jiggling joyously and throwing her arms around like a loony. It was a moment.
And it was just a moment. Within about 10 seconds of the second song, ‘Sober’, our very astute wee monster was screaming at us to take it off. “I don’t LIKE it!” she wailed. “Turn if off! I want the little bunny song!” So that was that.
If only the general public – or even the typical reviewer – was as astute. Lorde’s record company sent out a press release a few days back claiming “universal acclaim” for Melodrama, and it’s true that the media have been uncharacteristically enthusiastic about the album, especially down here in New Zealand, where to remain cool, calm and collected and assess the album based on its actual merit – rather than the fact that we’re all rooting for her on the world stage – has proved elusive. Ten days after its release, Metacritic’s review rating was an impressive 92 per cent.
Then there’s the record’s popularity with the punters. A New Zealand populace already feverish with rugby and the America’s cup seemed to stand together glowing with pride at the news that Melodrama had attained the number one spot on the Billboard charts. But of course, popularity has never necessarily been an indicator of quality.
It’s winter in NZ, and the pride we feel for our sportsmen and anyone achieving on the international stage is very fragile. Underneath the shouting ebullience we’re all a little melancholic at this time of the year, so we need something to believe in. Right now, our people want to believe in Lorde, and she’s come through for us with a miracle, and a melodramatic one at that, putting us on the map (ha!) yet again as if we were somehow just an inconsequential smudge on the globe that constantly needs talking up, our small nation syndrome.
It’s almost unthinkable to look at what Melodrama really is right now because the thought of it being ephemeral or flawed or superficial or clunky or factory-produced or focus grouped is just too depressing to contemplate.
This reviewer is very self-contained, and not driven by some unquenchable need to feel pride in the place I call home, so perhaps that’s why I’m able to see it the way it is, and call it that. Call it what, exactly? Well, to my ears, Melodrama is in parts all of the things I name above.
One of my Facebook friends – a major industry figure – had this to say, and it has the ring of truth to it:
“It has the sound and feel of a record made in Universal’s US boardroom despite the hype that it wasn’t, but for all that it had done exactly what it was designed to do. The pop machine rolls on. NZ should just be grateful that the machine anointed one of ours this time. That sounds cynical but I don’t think it’s far from the truth. I don’t think it’s a bad album at all but it’s not the album for the ages that the local media wish it to be. Still a hell of an achievement no matter how it was rolled.”
But that last line says it all about the confusion people have about the difference between art and industry. Yes, Melodrama’s success makes it a terrific achievement from an industry point of view, and I begrudge no one his or her pride in Lorde as a musical ambassador for New Zealand. But is it an artistic triumph? Hardly.
Let’s halt the critique for a minute to look at what’s good about Melodrama. Unlike Ella’s first album, Pure Heroine, the production is full of nooks and crannies and fantastic little flourishes, and there’s some real sound design going on that rather makes that first effort sound a little too minimalist to engage one’s senses fully. There’s some great singing, even if those voices don’t belong to Lorde, but are the massed ‘back-up’ vocal artillery that gives the album some impetus and drive. Ella’s lyrics, while they’re hardly deep or particularly meaningful, are full of intelligent, perceptive and sharp lines. And musical risks are taken, even if some of them don’t quite come off.
Unfortunately, the naff shit conspires to – and mostly succeeds to – rob the album of its charm. Who, for instance, thought it a good idea for Ella to so often sing in an uncomfortably low register? As with any glossy contemporary production, it’s next to impossible to figure out whether she can sing well, because most of the time the vocals are so layered and disguised, but when we hear more-or-less a solitary voice, it sounds underpowered, with little projection.
And then there’s the way the songs themselves have been constructed. ‘Green Light’ is one of the worst offenders, because it really sounds like a chorus grafted onto the sketch of a song, and although it’s a mighty, jubilant chorus, this technique is already sounding tired, and too much like an industry ploy to save a song that otherwise might have been wandering too close to balladry.
Speaking of which, the ballads (‘Liability’, ‘Hard Feelings’ and ‘Sober 2’, for instance) work well enough, without being blindingly great, and it’s quite refreshing to hear her with piano accompaniment, almost acoustic. But elsewhere, things get a bit pop-generic on songs like ‘Homemade Dynamite’.
There are playful, clever production touches in ‘The Louvre’ and memorable lines like “Our days and nights are perfumed with obsession.” And then there are the pieces that have the old bastards creaming their jeans: both ‘Sober 2’ and ‘Writer In The Dark’ sound like they’ve been immersed in the spirit of Kate Bush and left to germinate for a week. Yes, it is daringly different, especially in this conservative time, but does allowing yourself a little flourish indicate greatness?
To me, Pure Heroine was (and remains) a 3 out of 5 stars album: better conceived and presented than most pop products, but underwhelming. Melodrama, on the other hand, despite some really great moments, also has disastrous elements that indicate it’s something of a patch-up job. In fact, it makes me wonder whether ‘expert’ record company intervention was employed to try and make it more impactful, and have more traction on a fickle pop market. It’s another 3 out of 5 stars album overall. Just above average, but not much.
Now if any Lorde fans read this opinion piece, they’ll probably be incensed that some old dude disagrees with them, and want to bang on about the record not being for me because I’m not the target demographic, or that I shouldn’t have an opinion because she’s a wonderful young talent, or I should shut my mouth because I’m the wrong gender, and go back and listen to my Mamas & Papas records. Which reminds me: a hit-making group like the Mamas & Papas actually wrote songs that engaged with society at the time. The best pop music doesn’t wallow in superficiality, it actually has something to say, either about the personal or the politic or the personal-politic. It could be argued that Ella does write about meaningful stuff on Melodrama because clearly, a good chunk of the record is about breaking up and what comes after, as well as dealing with being Lorde, and all the challenges that entails. But it feels scattered, remote, and incredibly self-absorbed. There is of course a long history of artists being sucked up by the machine, and I’m sad to say that a fair chunk of Melodrama feels like the chunks regurgitated by that machine.