When I first wrote about Lorde a little while ago I predicted that she might be able to take advantage of the distraction provided by Katy Perry and Lady Gaga’s Clash of the Pop Divas that at the time was threatening to go nuclear to slip her basically perfect (but not especially flashy) single “Royals” into the top spot on the Hot 100. At the time it felt like wishful thinking, but here we are six weeks later and Gaga’s getting her ass beat by a novelty EDM song by a Norwegian comedy duo, a tamed “Roar” seems perfectly comfortable in the number two spot, and “Royals” is completely inescapable: it’s number one on the Hot 100, number three on the Billboard 200 album chart, and at the top of the On-Demand Songs, Digital Songs, and six of the charts in the Rock section, as well as decent placement on the other Pop charts (although Perry’s beating her there). The situation’s gotten to the point where not hearing the song is a challenge—the other day when I was on the back patio of a bar one of the neighbors blasted it through their window on repeat five times through in a row. (And no one on the patio seemed to mind until the fourth time or so.)
Since then I’ve become full-blown addicted (no pun intended) to Lorde’s debut album Pure Heroine, which with each listen I become a little more convinced is one of the top two or three albums of the year, so I think this current situation is perfect. She’s an incredible songwriter and lyricist, with a special talent for nailing the blend of angst, ennui, and occasional burst of unbridled optimism that typify the teenage state of mind. (The opening line, “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?,” from “Tennis Court” kills me every time.) And the skill for perfectly minimalist arrangements that she and Joel Little show off so well on “Royals” runs through the entire record.
There’s a lot more to love about Pure Heroine than the composition and clever turns of phrase, though. While it’s a legitimate pop album intended for a pop audience, it bristles with revolutionary energy in a way that’s incredibly rare for a work in this format to do. Its hooks are big and catchy, and Lorde’s got real pop charisma, but the deeper you get into the album the more it reveals an aggressive edge. The lyrics frequently deal with the anxious excitement of adolescents on the verge of independence colliding with a precociously jaded understanding of exactly how fucked up the world of adults they’re about to enter really is. Lorde also seems well aware that no matter how good they are, her words and her art aren’t going to be taken seriously by a lot of people simply because she’s a 16-year-old girl, and her frustration at it energizes the entire album. It’s a deeply personal and thoroughly political statement presented as a teen-pop album, and the only other record released this year that makes sense to compare it to is Yeezus by Kanye West, another artist who’s familiar with our culture’s widespread inability to take certain voices seriously.
So it’s an intellectually challenging pop record made to sound like a minimal rap music record created by a 16-year-old girl who wants to make being a 16-year-old girl into a revolutionary statement, and it’s also brutally catchy. I couldn’t be happier watching this thing detonate all over pop culture. I was wrong the first time. Lorde doesn’t need a distraction to give her a leg up in competing with the biggest pop stars on the globe. She’s doing just fine on her own.