Listening to the debut album from Ella Yelich-O'Connor, the precocious 16-year-old singer/songwriter phenom from Devonport, New Zealand, is an exercise in paradox. She's known as Lorde (a feminized rendering of the aristocratic title), a name that sounds both young and wise, or at least experienced beyond her years. She's affected and authentic at the same time, excruciatingly self-aware and delightfully self-effacing. Sometimes she's an insider, sometimes an outsider—a young adult critiquing older adults, an old soul who already feels nostalgic for the lost soul of her youth.
All of that comes clothed in spare, fierce bursts of impressionistic narrative—stories that set an evocative stage but are so lyrically restrained you're not always sure exactly what this adolescent pop poet is actually singing about. Sometimes you'll find yourself nodding in agreement as Lorde wittily deconstructs various kinds of cultural cool. Other times she seems an effortless embodiment of world-weary cool herself as she casually tosses off lines about boyfriends smoking too much.
No matter which side of the paradoxical line she's on at any given moment, though, Lorde's lush, synth-pop songs always smolder with angst and alienation. Or maybe it'd be better to say they ooze a quiet, seductive and melancholy pessimism. Somewhere, Twilight scribe Stephenie Meyer must certainly be wondering, "Where were you when I was putting together the soundtracks for my movies?"
Lorde has a knack for noticing the details of teen insecurity. "Tennis Court," for instance, finds her exploring the space between adolescent arrogance and awkwardness, her longing to be seen as beautiful and her compulsion to please others: "I'll be the beauty queen in tears/It's a new art form, showing people how little we care (yeah)/We're so happy, even when we're smilin' out of fear." That song also expresses her infatuation with glitzy accoutrements ("Getting pumped up from the little bright things I bought") even as she insists those baubles don't define her identity ("But I know they'll never own me"). Similar stuff shows up on her No. 1 hit "Royals" as she sings about how she and her friends are just fine with their bling-free lives: "And we'll never be royals/It don't run in our blood/ … And everyone who knows us knows/That we're fine with this, we didn't come from money." "White Teeth Teens" tags along with the same themes as well.
"Ribs" vents anxiety about getting old ("It drives you crazy, getting old/ … And I've never felt so alone/It feels so scary, getting old") amid pensive pining for the carefree days of childhood ("I want 'em back/The minds we had/How all the thoughts/Moved 'round our heads/ … You're the only friend I need/Sharing beds like little kids/Laughing till our ribs get tough/But that will never be enough"). "Team" touches on aging again: "I'm kind of older than I was when I reveled without a care/So there."
On "Buzzcut Season," intimacy with a close friend provides a sense of meaning in a lonely, unreal world: "And I'll never go home again (place the call, feel it start)/Favorite friend (where nothing's wrong when nothing's true)/I live in a hologram with you." And album closer "A World Alone" concludes, "Maybe the Internet raised us," something Lorde implies isn't necessarily a good thing.
On "Tennis Court," Lorde drops an f-bomb as she ponders whether fame will cripple her ability to have fun on her own terms ("How can I f‑‑‑ with the fun again when I'm known?"). Several s-words turn up on "Still Sane."
"400 Lux" seems to nod knowingly at drinking, driving while drinking, and sneaking out at night: "You pick me up and take me home again/Head out the window again/We're hollow like the bottles that we drain/You drape your wrists over the steering wheel/ … We might be hollow but we're brave." Mildly suggestive in a sexual sense is the line "And I like you/ … I'd like it if you stayed."
Meanwhile, a party on "Glory and Gore" devolves into a drunken brawl: "There's a humming in the restless summer air/ … Dropping glasses just to hear them break/You've been drinking like the world was gonna end (it didn't)/Took a shiner from the fist of your best friend (go figure)." "Ribs" reminisces about "the drink you spilt all over me." "A World Alone" references smoking ("You haven't stopped smoking all night"), drinking ("Raise a glass, 'cause I'm not done saying it") and … kissing? ("We're biting our nails, you're biting my lip/I'm biting my tongue").
Lorde's music is also infused with something of an us-and-them mentality. On one side is Lorde and her tribe of likeminded, disaffected youth; on the other is everyone else. Sometimes everyone else is adults, sometimes it's the cool kids. And the feeling that comes through is one of paradoxically cherished isolation. Lorde and her cronies feel alone in the world—but they kind of like it there. "We live in cities you'll never see onscreen," she tells us on "Team," "Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things/Livin' in the ruins of a palace within my dreams."
That last line hints at one more thread in Pure Heroine: the idea that ultimately Lorde and her kind are going to end up disappointed and alone. "Everyone's competing for a love they won't receive," she says later in the same song.
It's not easy to classify Pure Heroine's sense of being in touch with a kind of existential emptiness. Is it good to know so much about the world so young? Is it bad? Or both? And Lorde herself doesn't really seem to know what to do with her ennui—other than wiling away endless hours with friends who have a thing for smoking and drinking, that is. On "Tennis Court," she voices this disdain: "Don't you think that it's boring how people talk?" And on "400 Lux," we hear, "We're never done with killing time/Can I kill it with you?"
It doesn't help matters that Pure Heroine is so deeply secular in its musings, with God almost never creeping into the lyrical picture. In place of anything spiritual, the best Lorde can find to fill the vacuum is friendship (and perhaps romance) with likeminded souls. "I love these roads where the houses don't change (and I like you)," she professes on "400 Lux," "Where we can talk like there's something to say."
And, indeed, she doesn't really seem convinced that there's much that's meaningful to say—the pretty poetry of her lyrics notwithstanding.