|Spareness is as sparseness does|
New Zealand native Ella Yelich O'Connor, a.k.a Lorde, has only recently turned 17, but has already made a big splash on the international music scenic, with her single "Royals" and her first full-length album Pure Heroine. When a teen gains musical popularity, I sometimes wonder if their success is manufactured by the industry (pretty much any Mouseketeer* or American Idol) or they are the real deal (Stevie Wonder, Taylor Swift). From what I've seen, Lorde is the real deal, meaning it was her talent, both in performing and creativity, that really led to her success (with the help of some savvy parents and a label, of course). She also seems to be more grounded than any large-ear-hatted teen. And from what we've seen from other teen music stars, she'll need that grounding if she wants to stay sane.
A lot has been said about the album's lyrical stand again consumerism, keeping up appearances, and perpetual party pop, so I won't dwell too much on those aspects here. Suffice to say that the album is meant to be countercultural. My favorite line (from "Team") to that effect is "I'm kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air". This blatant critique of the simplistic and shallow lyrics of much pop fare is refreshing, especially in this music's popularity. In order to create the teen countercultural anthem rally, though, the album resorts to a fair amount of first-person plural talking at the audience, which is okay if the audience already agrees with the message presented. But this approach can also have the effect of sounding just like a pampered teenager who thinks they have it all figured out. This might be grating to some, though probably cool to other teens. Additionally, I wouldn't say the meaning of the lyrics are always crystal clear, which can be a problem for anthems (though maybe not counterculture).
Queen of sparseness
But I think that, like most cases, the album succeeds because the music succeeds. The melodies are catchy, but not too repetitive. Interestingly, Lorde communicates the musical form mostly by changing the character of the melodies instead of the instrumentation or something else—and not just altering the melodic line, but also the rhythmic content. The extent this melodic character shifting is done is somewhat unusual. Choruses also work because the melodies contrast with each other, even if they aren't always big and full pop choruses.
Turning to musical texture, by which I mean the layers of the music, Pure Heroine is sparse. I don't think they spent a fortune on production, and they didn't need to. The sparse texture serves to highlight Lorde's very mature-sounding voice. For example, "Royals" is basically just a spare bass beat, snaps, and Lorde's voice (sometimes thickly overdubbed for contrast). Most of the album just highlights the vocal melody, with not much else. When the sparsity of "Royals" is paired with other top 40 fare, it it stand out starkly amidst the complex multi-instrumental accompaniment and backup singers. I'm usually of the opinion "the thicker texture, the better," but I think Lorde's minimal approach works. Of course, that is the lyrical point of "Royals", right? This music conveys the lyrical content: "We don't need all that extra stuff in our lives. We're just fine with the stuff we have, with maybe some imagination to fill the gaps." Lorde's vocals aren't flashy, either, but still full of character—again part of the song's message.
"But every song's like…"
Having said that, I think the album does become a little monotonous and would be helped by a little more variation in timbre. Not all the songs are quite memorable, and Lorde's sullen voice does seem bland after a while. She might work on developing some different vocal characters. And at 17, she's got a lot of time for development.
I'd also like to lift the publicity curtain and point out the man behind it—all the songs on Pure Heroine are co-written by Joel Little. Though twice the age of Lorde, Little is still young (early thirties), but he's got a lot a production experience in his native New Zealand. I think that he deserves a fair amount of credit in the production of a successful album. I wouldn't be surprised if, like the similar freshman album by then-teenage Avril Lavigne, Lorde wrote the majority of the words and needed help to fill out the music. To his credit, though, Little is happy to give Ella Yelich O'Connor the full front stage. It will be interesting to see if they remain a team for future projects.
What did you think of the album?
Vocab: chorus, texture, overdubbed
*I don't to to say that all former Mouseketeers aren't talented, just that they had a large industry machine working in their favor. Also, they don't usually take part in the creative part of the music-writing, just the performing part.