(Note: This post falls into the “Late to the Party” category, since I formed my opinion a week ago but only now was able to edit through my notes. As of this writing, I have yet to listen to Lorde’s new single, “Liability,” which released Thursday. For the sake of reviewing this song independently, I’ll be waiting until after this is published.)
The TL:DR is, Green Light made me feel disappointed.
But it’s complicated.
I remember the first time I heard “Royals,” in my sophomore year of college, through my roommate’s YouTube feed. The video (both New Zealand and US versions) was remarkably low-concept. Though impressive, it felt like something she could have shot with her friends in her bedroom. I think my exact reaction was something close to: “This is the most incredible songwriter of the next generation.”
Though she was already attached with producers at that point and getting attention through the radio, for a long time I thought she was a Youtube sensation along the lines of Justin Bieber. And that was a lot of the appeal of Lorde. She posted ramblings on Tumblr. She hung out with a non-celebrity boyfriend. Her full album, Pure Heroine, was filled with suburban humility and biting commentary on the upper classes.
Her first album absolutely became my go-to for studying, driving, chilling out, Et. Al. It was my happy place. It was bouncy and stylistically crisp, with pleasing vocals. I most loved Lorde’s lyricism, though, which has a unique, grammatical playfulness that has always appealed to me in poets. Even in her stage name, “Lorde,” was hand-designed by her in order to evoke power, yet include a feminine touch at the end.
I don’t know anyone who was prepared for her performance of Royals at the 2014 Grammys, which featured a flickering gothic archangel, black makeup, and feral dance moves that seem to have been inspired by a clawing demonic possession. No one dances the way Lorde does, and no one ever will again. Over the years, I’ve struggled with this image—which makes me so uncomfortable—coming from someone whose music is so inspiring to me. I eventually decided that Lorde’s dancing (which has since become signature in all her video appearances) represents the kind of unbridled emotion only present in artists who dance without care for being judged.
For better or worse, it didn’t stop me from desperately wanting more music. When she was picked to curate the Hunger Games Mockingjay soundtrack, I cheered. Lorde proved to be the perfect match for bringing Katniss’s voice to life. In my opinion, the album’s feature single, “Yellow Flicker Beat” is still her best work to date (with the sole exception of her South Park cameo “I am Lorde, Ya Ya Ya,” which parodied her upper lip hair).
Which Brings us to Today
Green light seems so different from the Lorde of years past that the first several times I listened, I didn’t know what to do with it. Lorde herself admits it’s different, and wants her audience to accept it as part of her evolving public image. I think this leads audiences into a great quandary, because the fact is, despite how an artist’s livelihood is tied to their fans, artists can and do change without those fans’ approval.
Most artists with an extended career will eventually produce albums that resonate differently with different people. For example, I am deeply impacted by Coldplay’s sound and lyrical themes pre- “Viva la Vida,” and I think their new music is boring. However, I know people who would argue that technically, the band is currently doing their most daring work (or by some reports, is “done” making music after having hit the ceiling).
In Green Light and in all the promo material for her upcoming record, Lorde presents a decidedly more mature image. She is still intimate, but no longer a bedroom pop prodigy. She’s growing up. And it’s not like we weren’t expecting it to happen. In her announcement for the album, Lorde said she wanted to chronicle the last three and a half years of her life. Her new album appears to be primarily about this journey into adulthood. The night before she turned 20, she wrote:
“All my life I’ve been obsessed with adolescence, drunk on it…Since 13 I’ve spent my life building this giant teenage museum, mausoleum maybe, dutifully wolfishly writing every moment down, and repeating it all back like folklore. And now there isn’t any more of it…Writing Pure Heroine was my way of enshrining our teenage glory, putting it up in lights forever so that part of me never dies, and this record – well, this one is about what comes next. ”
So Lorde is definitely changing. But the question is: is it progress?
She said she wanted to write music she could dance to—and I guess this delivers. It’s not her catchiest tune. But as soon as I made that conclusion, it got stuck in my head for the next two days. The tag “Hope they bite you” in particular feels like it’s been a part of Lorde’s music for years.
It still feels like a Lorde song in many ways. She is still writing about disillusionment, with her inability to “get my things and just let go.” She mentions how the “Great Whites they have big teeth” —Teeth are a major theme in her earlier work. Structurally, it’s as creative as her old work. But it takes risks in different ways, and in the end, I just don’t like it as much.
My biggest problem with the song is common to other pop anthems, where the chorus sounds like it should have just been a pre-chorus. There is a huge ramp up of emotion at “I hear the sounds in my mind,” and especially when Lorde and the backups shout, “I’M WAITING FOR IT, THAT GREEN LIGHT, I WANT IT” like the pit crew of Speed Racer. But technically, the repeated part is only two lines, and it falls flat. Even if you include the pre chorus as “…I hear the sounds,” it’s just not long or distinctive enough to feel like a chorus. You can dance to it, but it makes it harder to sing.
One thing that stands out from a little research is Lorde’s dedication to the labor of songcrafting. I have to admit I don’t have any complaints on the lyric front. It’s the subtle things that make the song: “I do my makeup in somebody else’s car” followed by the added -s at the end of “We order different drinks at the same bars.” The way she almost says “Honey” without an H for the sake of the aesthetic. Or her use of “ever” in place of “wherever” on the line, “I’ll be seeing you ever I go.”
Probably the most suggestive part of the song is “Sometimes I wake up in a different bedroom,” and I don’t have words to describe how good a line that is. Confessional, sultry, yet just vague enough to totally work.
This is a song that can be interpreted ambiguously. Apparently, it’s about a breakup. But it also paints a pretty good picture of compulsive debauchery and self-medicating through adrenaline. I don’t want to judge Lorde’s moral character, except that she clearly judges herself throughout the song. There is so much packed into the lyrics that by the end, there is little question about the kind of emotion she’s describing, regardless of the specifics you imagine.
It’s a song about recklessness, or at least restlessness. It is filled with reverb and various sounds fading in and out like a passing car in a city. For all the fun and dancing, it leaves you with a sense of emptiness. It starts abruptly, and is over too fast. That could be the point, if the song is intended to imitate a wild night. But because I’m not by any means a music critic, all I have to draw from is how the song made me feel—which is just that. I wanted more.
This is what happens when you fall in love with music, but not with the artist. I know it’s nearly impossible to follow up a great debut. But though Lorde paints herself as having grown up, it’s hard not to feel like she’s lost something.
I’m not giving up hope, though. Lorde says that the upcoming record, Melodrama, has the best lyrics she’s ever written, and she is prouder of it than anything else she’s ever done. I know that feeling. From all accounts, she absolutely poured herself into this upcoming record. Regardless of my own expectations for how it should be done, there is something confidence-inducing about a project when it is clear that the artist was intentional about the choices they made. Their dedication allows you to accept and respect it, because it’s important and true to them. At least Lorde’s confidence makes me want to trust her enough to see where this goes.