The world looks different at 16 years old. Friend drama’s in full swing, test scores start to matter and happiness is neither fashionable nor attainable. It’s just as easy to laugh as it is to cry, time rushes by at a snail’s pace and then infinity-fast towards the future: bright, scary and all about me.
The world at 16 needs no further complications. The last thing it needs is an international audience to amplify them. In today’s jaded, cynical age, it’s more understandable to follow the classic “volatile teenage popstar” trend of Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and all the more impressive for someone who’s taken the world stage can stand astride it with poise, wit and modesty.
Yet fame came quick and unexpectedly, almost unwantedly, for Ella Yellich-O’Connor, the teenaged New Zealand wunderkid behind Lorde, whose single, “Royals” burst into international radio coverage this past July. She’s arrived to the tune of sudden acclaim and record-breaking success: as the first female in 17 years to top Billboard’s Alternative chart and probably the only person ever to turn down an opportunity to tour with Katy Perry. Her first record, The Love Club EP dropped in November of last year, and her full length debut, Pure Heroine was released this past Monday.
Despite the potential trappings of her years and frequent radio play, The Love Club EP offers a refreshing perspective from the often-troubled, often manufactured outlook of teenage pop stars. Lyrically Lorde stays true to herself, often contrasting her simple upbringing with her new life of expectations brought on by worldwide fame. At times fame turns to fear, she begins the EP with the confession: “It’s the closest thing to assault/When all eyes are on you.”
On “Bravado” she channels on a smaller scale the epic and isolated sound of Kanye West, who served as a major influence. The title track and “Million Dollar Bills” open with catchy vocal stitches that stay interesting and surface-bound. Producer Joel Little keeps arrangements tight and focused, and excepting the drawn-out “Biting Down,” tracks flow briskly and easily. The EP’s cleanness often works in its favor, providing an undistracting backdrop for Lorde’s impressive vocals. Her vocal maturity is another highlight of the EP and part of what makes her so refreshing: while lots of pop artists sing in a perpetual state of belted-out autotune chorus (I’m looking at you Katy Perry), Lorde slinks confidently around verses with the ease of someone ten years older.
She channels that same coolness with the darker, sparser arrangements of her debut album. Simple, skeletal hip-hop beats punctuate Lorde’s breathy delivery on the opening track, “Tennis Court”, while “400 Lux” sets droning synths and thumping drums to the sentiment, “We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain.” Lorde frequently defaults to apathy but these observations betray a personality much more grounded and honest than the frequently-compared-to Lana Del Rey, whose Americana drawl at times becomes insufferable.
Unlike the self-described “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”, Lorde finds insightful, interesting lyrics closer to home. Though a majority of her songs deal with similar themes, they bring to mind an engaging but relatable persona that doesn’t aim to be anything but herself. She confesses on “Royals” she doesn’t need, “gold teeth” and “gray goose” as long as she has someone to call her “Queen Bee.” She doesn’t need you, either: Pure Heroine begins with asking, “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?” and ends on a chorus of, “People who talk/Let em’ talk.”
Lorde wears the cool demeanor comfortably because it’s natural, yet she shows the most promise on tracks where she lets loose. On “Ribs” the detached cool gives way to a lush, warm synth atmosphere and the swoon of teenage ecstasy at 16. It’s rushed and powerful and Lorde at her most enjoyable. A similar energy pervades the upswing of the chorus of “Team” and the reshuffling rhythm-changes of “White Teeth Teens.”
The Beach House riffs and layered vocals of the final track, “A World Alone” cap off a generally cohesive and aware effort. At 16 it’s a relief to conform to the image of what succeeds. Often it’s easy as it is necessary in light of the risky and unproven. Both lyrically and musically, however, Lorde shows the comfort with which she wears her own skin. In a landscape where shameless aggrandizing has become the norm, normalcy, surprisingly enough, stands out.