Lorde – Pure Heroine – Throwback 10

Once in a blue moon, you get one of those first-time listens.  Where you hit play and immediately know that everything is different now.  The record which speaks to you, rewrites your brain chemistry, becomes an obsession that you cannot stop proselytising about to anyone in your vicinity for months on end.  The record that feels like watching someone touch lightning and come away totally unscathed, greatness that’s instantaneous yet is also still so raw and filled with future potential.  I’m fairly certain anybody going out of their way to read anniversary pieces on pop culture websites knows what I’m talking about and can rattle off more than a few examples that happened to them.

But it’s another thing to be there on the ground floor for the kind of lightning strike record whose ripples reverberate well beyond your own social circle and outward to greater pop culture.  The kind of album that a listener can tell is about to rewrite the entirety of its genre all by itself.  It is a rush to know that game-changing assumption in your bones and have it turn out completely correct.  Ten years ago this week, I had that kind of lightning strike when I first finished Lorde’s debut album, Pure Heroine.

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By late September of 2013, Lorde the great mainstream up-ender was already the prevailing narrative surrounding the then-sixteen-year-old thanks to the surprise dominance of ‘Royals’.  This New Zealand teenager still in school, with no prior releases, little industry connections, and minimal social media presence who came out of nowhere to score a US #1 single for nine consecutive weeks on her first go.  A song that had just as much in common with James Blake as it did Jack White as it did J. Cole, earning radio play on genre-format stations which otherwise had no time for pop music.

A song with lyrics explicitly denouncing the materialism and empty hedonism of the early-2010s pop scene, paired with a minimalist beat where silence is just as much a lead instrument as the synthetic finger-snaps.  In the same year that Justin Timberlake was singing about wearing a suit and tie in luxurious David Fincher music videos, Miley Cyrus was swinging naked from a wrecking ball whilst backed by EDM production that tried to demolish buildings, and Daft Punk were audibly spending literal millions of dollars on high-class dinner party music.  And here came Lorde to beat everybody at their own game by pulling a Fiona Apple and noting how the world is bullshit.

‘Royals’ screencap.

Of course, neither the singer/songwriter born Ella Yelich-O’Connor from the small Auckland suburb of Takapuna, nor the sea-change moment her music represented, came about overnight.  For Lorde, she’d been honing her craft in development deals since being signed at twelve by manager Scott Maclachlan when he saw footage of her singing at a talent show.  In late 2011, after a series of failed workshops with various industry hands, Lorde was paired with producer Joel Little and the pair soon hit it off, figuring out the spare hip-hop inflected sound which would go perfectly with her literary lyricism – born from her poet mother encouraging to read authors like J.D. Salinger and Raymond Carver at a young age.  Another semester of high school later, their next session would form debut EP The Love Club; ‘Royals’ being one of the very first songs finalised with the lyrics penned during a 30-minute scribble at home.

Partly because Universal Music Group were dragging their heels on promotional commitments, partly because Lorde herself wanted to ensure that even teenagers without a credit card could access the music she’d made for them, The Love Club was initially put out for free download on Soundcloud in late-2012 where it became a word-of-mouth sensation.  By the time UMG pulled it down, it had been downloaded over 60,000 times.  When they officially released the EP on iTunes in March of 2013, it still went straight in at #2 on New Zealand’s album charts.  And ‘Royals,’ the lead single for both the EP and the album that Lorde and Little were now hurried into making, was already in the midst of a DISCOURSE backlash, a backlash to said backlash, and a chart run that would see #1 placements in a near-dozen regions.

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As is usually the case with such changeovers, a not insignificant amount of luck, cultural context, and historical precedent also factored in.  ‘Royals’ is a brilliant song, but it also functions as a culmination/evolution of many other movements.  By 2013, the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic had been ruled by aspirational party music for half-a-decade; a reaction to the rise in the US of EDM, an escapist desire to avoid thinking about the 2007-08 financial crisis, and the misguided optimism of the first Obama term and its rhetoric of “CHANGE” which never quite came to pass.  At a certain point, the endless party, the escapist opulence, and flashing of expensive cars and champagnes and fashions by the most popular media starts to feel constricting, oppressive, hopelessly out-of-touch.  Somebody was going to make a song that rocks up and pops the balloon of this delusion, giving a voice and validation to those tired of all this.

‘Tennis Court’ video screencap.

Technically, two people did just that – Billboard’s Song of 2013 was Macklemore + Ryan Lewis’ ‘Thrift Shop’ – but Lorde was the one who rejected the sound of the moment as well as its sentiments, going sparse and intimate where her targets like Lana Del Rey were going grand and theatrical.  This itself was the culmination of a minimalist movement; The xx’s acclaimed self-titled debut in 2009 sent its own ripples throughout the music industry, James Blake was refashioning post-dubstep into a moody new strain of R&B, and Burial’s legend was only growing.  But none of those Internet-acclaimed artists were pairing their minimalism with pop’s gift for universality, walking the tightrope between a true intimacy with the listener and a cathartic series of gigantic melodies that can win over the kinds of passive listeners who make songs into HITS.  Meanwhile, Lorde’s status as an outsider looking in on a vapid pop industry to tell it like it is was absolutely nothing new; it’s a lineage stretching from Alanis Morissette to M!ssundaztood-era P!nk and beyond.  Every pop generation has one, arguably needs one.

Yet, none of this should undercut the craftmanship nor the impact of ‘Royals’.  It’s a hell of a song, the kind that could even win over eighteen-year-olds who made a deal out of not caring for pop music.  (Hello, I was that kind of insufferable teenager.)  I was on that initial Love Club hype train, at the time where I scoured music blogs for free downloads in the early throes of muso brain, and seeing ‘Royals’ conquer the world was very validating.  But, one mega-hit is not automatically indicative of a seismic pop sound shift; ‘Royals’ could have easily been written off as a novelty if Lorde couldn’t come through with the goods on her album proper.  ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ probably wouldn’t have had as meteoric an impact on the state of rock music were the rest of Nevermind not up to its level.

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Fortunately, Pure Heroine delivered.  The Lorde story can be dominated by ‘Royals’, and this anniversary piece has been no exception, but the album which followed in its wake is what really cemented her impact.  As with that single and the Love Club EP, Heroine is a genre-agnostic minimalist pop album driven primarily by its star’s teenaged outsider viewpoint.  ‘Royals’ is a template that Lorde and Little build upon and around, but never try to reproduce or imitate; a fatal mistake which catches out so many other artists who score surprise pop hits before their album is ready.  Many songs on here pitch themselves in opposition to the mainstream’s idealistic Hollywood interpretation of teenaged life – living in cities you’ll never see on screens, knowing the little bright things you bought will never own you, defiantly not being a white teeth teen – whilst also being cognizant of Lorde’s own growing fame and the fun and fears it provides; catching her at a time where she still likes hotels though she thinks that will change.

‘Team’ video screencap.

Much like ‘Royals’, the music underpinning these sentiments is stripped-back, minor key or adjacent, and has DNA indebted to multiple genres in the way that only a first-generation Internet artist like Lorde was doing at the time.  The second half of both verses in opener ‘Tennis Court’ adopt a rap-like flow to their cadence which, paired with the slight trap bounce in the drum programming, puts her closer to mixtape The Weeknd than someone like Ariana Grande.  ‘A World Alone’ marks the lone usage of tangible guitar on the album yet arguably sounds much closer to M83 than 90% of the indie artists at the time who were tripping over themselves to shamelessly rip-off Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.  ‘White Teeth Teens’ has been listening to a lot of Channel Orange Frank Ocean in its boom-bap drum programming and wrong-footing song structure.  In another world, ‘Team’ would be a Katy Perry song, something sat alongside ‘Roar’ off Prism, but the darker strobes in Little’s synths and minor key modulations of the chorus take the plastic sheen off and bring the scale right down to the tennis courts of old.

These instrumentals all work to reinforce Lorde’s lyrics first and foremost.  In many ways, her intimate, literary, diaristic approach to lyricism on Pure Heroine isn’t too far removed from Taylor Swift, trying to bring the listener into their world like we’re all best friends shooting the shit.  The key difference being Swift that was already deep into the celebrity gossip phase of her writing career, whereas Lorde’s was instead preoccupied with a very teenaged sense of suburban ennui.  At the time, you couldn’t move for critics pegging her as “an old soul”.  Setting aside the fact that the whole concept is bullshit – there’s a great little exchange in Kelly Fremon Craig’s excellent teen dramedy The Edge of Seventeen which demonstrates the inherent nonsense in teenagers thinking they’re “old souls trapped in a young person’s body” – I’ve never bought into that argument, and it kinda reeks of insecurity on the critic’s part.

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Lorde on Pure Heroine sounds and writes like a teenager.  A very smart, perceptive, and empathetic teenager, but a teenager nonetheless.  She can pen these poetic couplets that paint vivid pictures – “Even the comatose/They don’t dance and tell” in muted working class teen pride anthem ‘Team’ – then turn around and deliver the kind of straightforward attention-grabbing lyric that will instantly be memorialised on a hundred Tumblr blogs after first utterance – “I’m kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, so there” just a few lines later.  It takes a real skill to pull off that dichotomy without undercutting either side.  Combined with her reserved vocal delivery – never belting out for attention, using her higher register sparingly, but also never mumbling; her pitch is constantly in motion and that’s a key factor in the stickiness of the album’s melodies – a 17-year-old can feel like they’re having their emotional reality reflected back at them even if they’re not running around lifeless suburbs with friend gangs on the verge of becoming internationally famous.

‘Buzzcut Season’ visualiser screencap.

The pièce de résistance of this approach is undoubtedly ‘Ribs’.  Gliding along a dreamy E-B7-C#m (and later A-E-C#m) synth progression, Lorde sits the listener within that moment in your teenaged life where you get hit with the existential realisation that everything’s about to irrevocably change.  That party with ‘Lover’s Spit’ by Broken Social Scene on repeat, safely wrapped up with your friends talking so good, where it suddenly hits you that you’re becoming an adult and carefree moments like this will no longer exist.

The two verses operate in the past and future, the past of the night’s prior events and the future of years from now when you’re reeling through the midnight streets never feeling more alone, before the bridge collapses the two timelines together in a rush of ecstasy and nostalgia.  On an album which otherwise spends much of its time with its eyebrow arched, ‘Ribs’ is devastatingly earnest and vulnerable.  It’s simple in its messaging, teenaged in its viewpoint and conversationally intimate soundscape, yet universal in its anxiety; the kind of song which hits no matter what age you listen to it, but hits in different ways depending on what age you are that listen.  Speaking from experience, at a live show, this is the point where a mass exorcism of feeling seems to take place from all attending.

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Any fears that Lorde was gonna be dismissed as a fluke one-hit wonder ended right there on my first listen (even if ‘Ribs’ never got put out as a single), and the rest of Pure Heroine just confirmed my gut instinct.  Aside from ‘Glory and Gore’ – a song I’ve never really enjoyed; it feels too try-hard, especially when Billie Eilish would later come along and much more convincingly embody the persona of a take-no-shit bad guy teen than Lorde does here – the whole album felt effortless and self-assured.  A perfectly calculated yet totally sincere reaction to the 2013 pop moment yet also transcends that specific backdrop to remain a powerful record today.  One that presented an artist who seemed fully formed yet could also be in it for the long haul.

Much like how Nevermind didn’t actually kill off hair metal in one fell swoop, Pure Heroine didn’t immediately kill off the Swedish House Mafias, will.i.ams, and Katy Perrys of the pop world; hell, Perry would actually score the #2 song of 2014 according to Billboard’s metrics.  But what it did do was set about a growing change that would eventually take over the pop landscape.  It spawned imitators like Alessia Cara, Daya, and early Halsey who tried so very hard to project an outsider alt-pop edge that was significantly less successful at riding the line between profound and profoundly stupid (Halsey would eventually get better).

‘Royals’ video screencap.

With a perceived authenticity and parasocial closeness now being in vogue, the industry’s big hitters felt the need to pivot in an often-flailing fashion.  Talk-singing and bedroom pop-style production was almost prerequisite for new female pop stars as the 2010s drew to a close.  And, eventually, the generation for whom Pure Heroine became a foundational text would storm the industry with explicit mentions of how it influenced them: Billie Eilish, Troye Sivan, Conan Grey, and Olivia Rodrigo being just a handful of the more obvious ones.

Lorde herself would not be a part of that new pop landscape.  Despite being pegged as “the future of music” by both David Bowie and Dave Grohl, she instead receded from mega-stardom in pretty much every region other than her native New Zealand.  After a year drinking in the spoils of Pure Heroine’s success, touring the world, palling around with Taylor Swift, a South Park parody I didn’t even get at the time and certainly don’t now, a cushy job curating the all-star soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, and seeing ‘Royals’ get a Rick Ross remix that managed to be completely antithetical to the song’s entire point, Lorde refused to rush any proper follow-up.  When she finally returned with Melodrama in 2017 – a record simultaneously more accessible and technicolour, yet also much more unconventional and insular than her debut – it barely made a dent in the mainstream.

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Whilst, in time, Melodrama would also prove massively influential on the pop landscape, if for no other reason than its primary creative partner Jack Antonoff becoming the most sought-after man in the industry for the next half-decade, Lorde settled into reclusive cult stardom.  She wiped almost all her social media in early 2018, gives very few press interviews, communicates almost exclusively in infrequent but lengthy and personal email missives directly to her fanbase, and took another four years to make her third album (2021’s very divisive Solar Power).  It suits her well.  She was little coming for the crown, got everyone to call her Queen B and live that fantasy for a brief time, and then rejected trying to remain a white teeth teen in favour of remaining true to herself.  In the process, she carved a path for so many other artists who thought and felt like her, gave voice and comfort to millions of teenagers worldwide both then and now, and made one of the most arresting debut albums of the decade.

Pure Heroine was released on 27th September 2013.

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