In the earlier stages of my musical discoveries, I ended up stumbling into a lot of concept albums that absolutely entranced me; they were albums that would blend in from one track to the next, albums that had blatant recurrence of musical themes, albums that were so cohesive that it felt like a hindrance to listen to them out of order or by individual track. It’s left me with the (inaccurate) predisposition to think of any concept album as such, when sometimes “concept album” means nothing more than a group of songs with a common theme, but I’ve gotten better at managing these expectations in recent years.
When I read that Lorde’s sophomore release is a concept album about being alone, I had the same reaction of managing expectations; sure, there may be a common theme somewhere in there, but how loose are the ties bonding these tracks together?
As it turns out, my managed expectations were unnecessary with Melodrama. On first listen, I didn’t notice much more than “Sober” having a titular sequel in “Sober II (Melodrama),” and the penultimate track being a compelling reprisal of “Liability,” but on each consecutive listen, the loneliness sculpted by the album’s soundwaves becomes an increasingly tangible being, a subtle depiction that eventually becomes overwhelming in a powerful and effective way.
The album came to fruition following Lorde’s breakup with her longtime boyfriend, but Melodrama’s loneliness goes beyond that. It’s full of atmospheric synths and bass musical minimalism that blends with Lorde’s intimate vocals; it’s cohesive and compelling in its portrayal of feelings of confliction and uncertainty.
The album’s two singles, “Green Light” and “Perfect Places,” are sonically upbeat and would almost seem to be out of place, but the two tracks work in tandem to sell the album’s theme possibly most effectively of all. The former is a bitter post-breakup anthem, laced with haunting vocal harmonies and energetic piano riffs as it screams to be granted the freedom to move forward in Lorde’s repetition of, “I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it.” “Perfect Places” can easily be mistaken as a carefree track, but digging into the lyrics sung exuberantly throughout the choruses among synths and a heavy beat reveals a deeply rooted pessimism, an awareness that the search for happiness through partying is in vain. For most of the song, Lorde is seeking out the elusive, titular “perfect places,” only to repeatedly acknowledge that they don’t exist at the end, questioning, “What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”
As the first and last tracks, respectively, these bookends of the album both express a desire for more, a want for the ending of this feeling, but Melodrama doesn’t find that closure, and it leaves the listener coming from the album with Lorde’s contemplations bouncing around their head.
The other nine tracks truly fill in this mood. “Sober” is full of deep synths as it discusses mind-altering substances, understanding even under their influence that the feeling is a temporary solution. “Sober II (Melodrama)” carries the theme forward with an orchestral backing, haunting vocals emphasizing the darker mood of the sequel.
Lorde delves directly into lost love in tracks like “The Louvre,” which is an ode to a beginning relationship backed by a bass riff where Lorde simultaneously looks at the bright side of things while knowing that she’s giving herself over to something that’s flawed, noting, “Blow all my friendships / To sit in hell with you.”
“Hard Feelings / Loveless” stands out as one of the album’s most powerful tracks, the medley baring the singer’s soul in the “Hard Feelings” section, summing up the relationship’s good and bad parts and looking to the grim reality of the present, confessing “I care for myself the way I used to care about you” while using gaping maws of instrumental silence to sell the story of the dissolving relationship. The “Loveless” section, on the other hand, takes to biting lyrics and saccharine vocals, filling out the six-minute piece on a contrasting note.
Further conflict about her past relationship comes through in following tracks “Writer In The Dark” and “Supercut.” In the confrontational piano ballad of “Writer In The Dark,” Lorde seems to extricate herself from this past relationship, declaring, “In our darkest hours, I stumbled on a secret power / I’ll find a way to be without you, babe.” But in the lively “Supercut,” full of heavy bass synths, even as she acknowledges that her positive reflections are merely summative of the good times and skipping the bad ones, she still pleads “We were wild and fluorescent, come home to my heart.”
“Liability” and its reprise see Lorde really digging into the core of the album, examining both sides of the coin of loneliness. The former track is a piano ballad starting off with a drive to find happiness on her own, referring to herself as “the girl that I love / The only love I haven’t screwed up” before describing the odd but effective picture of her dancing alone. As she hits the chorus, however, the song fades to pessimism while she discusses being cast aside by everyone. The reprise carries the theme forward with synths and a harmonizing vocal effect, intimately reflecting, “Maybe all this is the party / Maybe the tears and the highs we breathe,” which builds perfectly into the energetic (if still conflicted) closer in “Perfect Places.”
It’s an artful and complicated musical journey, all of its pieces working cooperatively in a powerful flow of confessional lyrics, pounding bass, and soft instrumentals to create a complete album experience. Lorde may not be sure where she is as a person or where she even is looking to end up within Melodrama, but musically, she knows exactly what she’s doing. It may not strike you on first listen, but her sophomore release is a stunning and cohesive musical composition that shouldn’t be missed.