“And she’s only 16!” If you ever hear New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde’s name mentioned in a sentence, then it’s almost inevitable that this phrase, or variations thereof, will follow it. That’s not to say it isn’t true. At the time of writing, Lorde, whose real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor, is indeed 16 years old. But on her debut album, Pure Heroine, she repeatedly sounds old beyond her years. And remarkably wise. But the album more than stands out on its own terms. Lorde’s age is ultimately reduced to a mere note in the margin and Pure Heroine illustrates her very own niche she has carved out for herself. Like how Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff is the epitome of the antihero, Lorde is perhaps the digital generation’s anti-teen idol. If Justin Bieber is Jay Gatsby, then Lorde is Holden Caulfield.
And we see this world-weariness straight away. “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?” she asks at the beginning of ‘Tennis Court’. “Making smart with their words again/Well, I’m bored”: within just the first few lines, she’s already told us she’s bored twice. And while the music for ‘Tennis Court’ is similarly deliberately unenergetic, it’s anything but boring. Sparse, trap-influenced beats are punctuated by coarse synths, with every so often Lorde crying out “Yeah!”, her voice having been digitally lowered. Whether it’s a passionate roar or a shout of boredom is ambiguous, but this masking is reflected in the chorus’ lyrics: “We’re so happy/Even when we’re smiling out of fear”. It may “look alright in the pictures” but the cracks in the façade are still there. Some describing it as ‘post-internet’, ‘Tennis Court’ is very much a song for a new generation.
This sense of admitting our flaws is also seen in ‘400 Lux’, where, like the hollow smile in ‘Tennis Court’, “we’re hollow like the bottles that we drink”. A refreshingly honest song dedicated to the ins and outs of young love and everything that goes with it, ‘400 Lux’ is decidedly laidback. The worry has gone and playing it by ear is the plan: “We’re getting good at this”. Perhaps the sweetest song on the album (without being sugary), it allows a moment to relax after the tense sonic landscape of ‘Tennis Court’.
The notion of suburban adolescent ennui is repeated on the next single, ‘Team’: “I’m kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air”. With an excellent cheerleader stomp of an intro, ‘Team’ is all about the ‘normal’ side of teenagers, the ones on Tumblr until 3am for instance: “Bring my boys in/Their skin in craters like the moon”. Lorde paints a picture that is decidedly imperfect but she comes across as being very content in the process. “We live in cities you’ll never see in the screen/Not very pretty but we sure know how to run things,” she sings in the chorus. ‘Team’ is a fun ode to the ordinary, seen in several songs throughout the record, like the wonderful ‘Ribs’.
It also forms the backbone of mega-hit ‘Royals’, which saw Lorde become the first solo female artist to top the Billboard alternative chart in 17 years. It sounds disillusioned without being cynical or preachy. Lorde uses the song to rebel against the luxuries referenced in many modern tracks, ranging from “tripping in the bathroom” to “tigers on a gold leash”. But Lorde has made it clear that she is a lover of hip-hop; ‘Royals’ comes out of being disenchanted at being unable to relate to these songs’ lyrics rather than any hatred. Its sound continues the minimalistic trend and enables her words to be placed firmly centre-stage.
Pure Heroine builds on the promise shown in Lorde’s early singles. Its light electronics mirror the album’s themes, creating a sound that isn’t unique but definitely interesting. There’s a precocious charm involved, which may be down to Lorde’s age but is more likely a result of her great writing skills, showcasing both vulnerability and indifference. Like she states on ‘Tennis Court’, “It’s a new art form/Showing people how little we care”. Now she just has to make sure she employs this “art” to her advantage: with so many people comparing her unfavourably to Lana Del Rey, the last thing she wants is for an original creation to seem mass-produced.