DISCLAIMER: I have been trying to write this article for (almost) a year. When Lorde’s cult album Melodrama was first released, I couldn’t listen to it immediately, and when I did it was so overwhelming and so important and so completely interwoven with utterly unrelated events happening in my life, that I couldn’t articulate any thoughts about it for months. Every time I have sat down and tried to produce some kind of analysis, I’ve been too wrapped up in my own life to be able to be critical – and then, in April, that fucking Lorde / Antonoff PowerPoint appeared and successfully put paid to any shred of objectivity I could have brought to this album.
So this is not a piece of cultural analysis; this is not a review. This is just me, meditating on how incredibly significant Melodrama has been for me, personally, how its lyrics have danced around my brain for a year, how it has unmade and remade me.
When I was sixteen, I met a boy. When I was seventeen, we started going out. When I was (a month shy of) eighteen, we went to Paris, and yes, we went to the Louvre. When I was twenty-two, we broke up. I sat in a park in Central London and we cried down the phone to one another and we agreed to end things. It was a trauma and a relief. As I sat pulling up every blade of grass I could get my hands on, waiting for my friend to come and get me, buy me a curry and put me on a bus back home, I listened to ‘Perfect Places’, which had come out that day.
A week, to the day, after that break-up, said newly-ex-boyfriend called to tell me that his father had died, and to ask me to come home. I sat on the ground in the middle of the night in a council estate in Camden, in the pouring rain, listening to him talk and replaying the conversation we’d had just seven days ago. I spent the next day on a hellish series of buses, with only my overnight bag (I had been staying with a friend after a Perfume Genius gig) and the clothes I’d been wearing (I would not advise showing up to a newly bereaved house in leather trousers, a hoodie belonging to someone you maybe have a crush on, and this t-shirt).
All of these memories, for me, are strangely coloured by Melodrama, even thought it wasn’t out yet. The relationship I had, and the one I didn’t have, the one we could have had, all the ways those two phone calls could have gone – they are all part of the narrative I’ve woven of my life, of the glamour and the trauma and the fucking melodrama of it all.
It’s not original to claim that the significance of a piece of art often changes over time, but it is something that’s been brought to life for me by Melodrama. When I listen to ‘Hard Feelings’ I think about a thousand things: I think about that break-up, about our reconcilement two months later, our second and final break-up three months after that; I think about my friends’ break-ups, about whether they have the same stories, whether these feelings and experiences that feel so unbelievably personal and private (“how you’d drift buying groceries, how you danced for me”) can possibly be universal; I remember the first time I listened to it, how I had read the line “take care of myself the way I used to care about you” on Twitter the day before, but was still overwhelmed when I heard it in context; I remember how I kept pausing it because I didn’t know whether the screeching noises were part of the song or a noise from the train I was on.
When I heard ‘The Louvre’ last summer, the song had been discussed so much on Twitter already that it was almost a disappointment. I still loved the track, but I had wanted it to be even better, somehow, some platonic ideal of a pop song. I felt the same about the break-up – like I had wanted something unreal, something that could never be, and that it was my own fault for getting my hopes up. For caring too much, and being disappointed again. For not trying harder. What does it matter if “in [your] head [you] do everything right”? Real life isn’t in your head. Still, once I had got over the minor disappointment, I loved ‘The Louvre’ – it was so relatable! “Overthink your punctuation use / Not my fault, just a thing that my mind do”? Check. Hyping up your relationships in a way that can only end in disappointment, or even “violence”? Check. Famous Parisian art museum occupying a prominent role in the narrative? Check!
A year on, that song does still hold all those meanings for me, but it also holds new ones. It’s no longer just about the boy who took me to Paris; it’s about other, newer crushes and “obsession[s]”, about the potential beginnings and endings and in-betweens stretching out ahead (and, ngl, about the affair that Lorde and Antonoff VERY DEFINITELY HAD). It inhabits and encapsulates this kind of paradoxical space, of being both hyper-relatable and completely unlike anything I’ve really experienced. The paradoxes extend to the lyrics, which are at once personal and general, specific and vague. Sonically, too, ‘The Louvre’ incorporates a whole mix of styles which stood out to me on the first listen: the muted, almost languorous opening that builds and launches us into the “rush at the beginning”; the intimacy of Lorde’s whispers juxtaposed with the very loud, very public announcements in the chorus (“megaphone to my chest / broadcast the boom boom boom and make ‘em all dance to it”).
Some of my notes from that first listen of the album are pretty coherent. I wrote about the transitions from the super-intimate moments to the (literally) explosive ones, about framing one’s life as a narrative (“go back and tell it”, the self-referential structure of the album as a whole…), about the personas Lorde inhabits in ‘Loveless’ and ‘Writer in the Dark’ and how they stack up against the likes of Taylor Swift or Marina and the Diamonds.
But ‘Supercut’. For ‘Supercut’, I have recorded not one single articulate thought. A year on, I still can’t be very articulate about it. This song, you guys. “In my head, I do everything right.” I heard it and I thought about my recent break-up and the confusing limbo we were now occupying because renegotiating boundaries in a crisis, after six years, is pretty difficult and anyway who wants to be introduced to extended family members at a funeral as “my ex-girlfriend”. And I thought about whether we would ever get it right, about how “in my head the visions never stop / these ribbons wrap me up”, about how to bridge that distance between head and heart, fantasy and reality. This whole period of my life was one in which I was constantly preoccupied by boundaries, by the difference between loving and being in love, between just-friend and more-than-friend, between healthy and unhealthy, between life and death, between before and after. I inhabited those spaces of uncertainty, of doubt, of growth and discovery and loss; I think Melodrama inhabits them too.
I don’t reject the claim that the album is the story of a house party, but I don’t think the story is important here, other than as a vehicle for emotion, for deeply personal experiences which transcend the actual events that caused or contained them – which is, of course, the formal definition of “melodrama”: an artistic work which particularly emphasises emotion over tangible plot development. ‘Green Light’ is a beginning song, a song about wanting things to end and wanting them to start. It is, in general terms, about waiting for what my friend dubs the “eureka moment”, the moment in which your heartbreak is solved and you have closure and you can move on. It is also, specifically, locally, about a dude who doesn’t like the beach. As the first single, first music video, and album opener, it is a thesis statement for Melodrama: this album will be intimate and it will be universal; it will be contradictory and coherent; will deal in precision and abstraction; will be opaque and transparent; will be for you and for me. The album is bookended by ‘Green Light’ and ‘Perfect Places’, by two upbeat semi-anthems, by these songs which not only inhabit but celebrate liminal and transformational spaces. The album itself is one of these spaces, a place you can go to be built up and knocked down simultaneously, to be alone and understood.
Perhaps Melodrama is so important to me because it is just that: melodramatic. When you are busy and overwhelmed and distracted by life – when you are going through the confusing and disorienting break-up-semi-reconciliation-proper-reconciliation-another-break-up process I went through last summer, while navigating life in the capital as a Millennial™, while trying and failing to stop your friendships from collapsing around your ears, while grieving, while writing a dissertation on grief because the universe played a horrible practical joke on you – there’s not actually a lot of time to think, or to feel. I cried about the break-up, for a few minutes, and then I got on with things; I cried about the death, for a lot longer, because that is a deeper but also a more accessible kind of pain; I stressed out about the other things, but I didn’t have time to cry about them.
Most of the things I’m describing here aren’t, actually, melodramatic. Dramatic? Sure. Traumatic? Very. Glamourous? Not particularly (unless your definition of “glamour” involves eating Sainsbury’s pasta from the tub with your bare hands in public because sourcing a fork might just push you over the edge). But Lorde, in her infinite wisdom, gave me the outlet of this album, and I clung to it as everything else was stripped away.
Sonically, lyrically, thematically, this album is melodramatic. We hit the ground running with ‘Green Light’, with the barely-held back aggression and frustration and longing of “I’m waiting for it / that green light / I want it”. ‘Sober’ quickly follows, the first verse opening with a dramatic – and impossible – claim: “Oh, God, I’m clean out of air in my lungs” (matched, in the second verse, by “Oh, God, I’m closing my teeth around this liquor-wet lime”, as though these are comparable statements worthy of divine attention). The soundscape, too, is dramatic, throbbing beats and breathless chanting, before suddenly dropping off to let her voice stand alone for “Jack and Jill get fucked up and possessive when it get dark.” This revelation of darkness, of shadowy and shameful emotions, is of course the point of the album, as Lorde herself has said: “I feel like the essence of Melodrama is ‘We pretend that we just don’t care / but we care’. We fucking care! and I’m going to show you. This record is a document about that care.”
Lorde has been honing her Cool Girl™ skills for years (“it’s a new art form, showing people how little we care”) but with this album, she seems to take that dismissive, languorous, vacuous persona out for one last night before dispensing with it. The narrator of ‘Sober’ is tortured by how much she cares; the narrator of ‘Homemade Dynamite’ can only ask “know I think you’re awesome, right?” In ‘The Louvre’, she criticises herself for “overthink[ing]”, for “get[ting] caught up”; she knows she’s making a mistake but she can’t help herself (“I know that you are not my type (still I fall) / I’m just the sucker who let you fill her mind”). But gradually, she opens herself to emotions, to not being cool: she tells this guy, “let’s let these things come out of the woodwork”; wants to tell the world about their love, hang it in the Louvre, “broadcast” her feelings and make the world listen and dance to the beat of her heart.
The turning point comes in ‘Liability’, almost halfway through the album, when the narrator is alone, “crying in the taxi”. Lorde says that this song became a “protective talisman” for her, a realisation that, “I’m always gonna have myself so I have to really nurture this relationship and feel good about hanging out with myself and loving myself.” After another disappointment, she turns inwards, and goes “home to the arms of the girl that I love / the only love I haven’t screwed up […] we slow-dance in the living room, but all that a stranger would see / is one girl, swaying alone, stroking her cheek”. By the start of ‘Hard Feelings’, she’s managed to get some kind of distance from her heartbreak – although she relives it as she tells the story, it is just a story, something she must “go back and tell.” She seems to relax into these emotions, letting herself be sad in the first part of the track and admitting that “the waves come after midnight”, that she “loved you every single day, made me weak, it was real for me,” before unleashing her vengeful side in ‘Loveless’, a petty, tongue-in-cheek, millennial pop song. But the high, as ever, has to end sometime.
The end of the party is announced by sombre strings, and Lorde answering the question asked near the end of ‘Sober’: “Can you feel it? Can you feel it?” “You asked if I was feeling it, I’m psycho high.” Coming down not only from the drugs, but from the rush of her own emotions, Lorde looks around at the wreckage, the “terror / and the horror” of getting carried away. But, as she reminds us, “we told you this was melodrama” – this is what we signed up for. Our only wish is melodrama / we wanted something that she offered. We wanted to get carried away, to get lost. We wanted the cliché hot summer days and “holy sick divine nights”, the “gun fights / and the limelight”, the rush of the party. She isn’t quite reproachful; she isn’t quite smug. “We told you this was melodrama / you wanted something that we offered” isn’t a criticism or a boast – it’s just a fact, looked at in the cold light of the morning after. In ‘Sober’, she looked ahead to the time after the party (“what will we do when we’re sober?”), and here, in ‘Sober II’, that time has come.
The next track, ‘Writer in the Dark’, also deals in facts and sober realisations. As in ‘Liability’, Lorde is getting comfortable with herself: “It’s what I’ve always been. It’s what I was when you met me. It’s what I will continue to be after you leave. That’s exactly what was going to happen when you kissed a writer in the dark.” She owns her own tendency to melodrama, painting herself as insane for the third time on the album (in ‘The Louvre’, she’ll be your “psychopathic” crush; in ‘Sober II’ she’s “psycho high”; here, she’ll “love you ‘til my breathing stops / I’ll love you ‘til you call the cops on me”), while simultaneously knowing that “I’ll find a way to be without you”, that she can be self-reliant. This is followed by ‘Supercut’, another break-up track that comes to terms with Lorde’s behaviour in relationships, her habit of turning her life into a narrative and struggling to make connections as a result of her idealism. As I said above, I can’t be very articulate about ‘Supercut’ because it has been so, so influential and intricately bound up with my own life experiences over the last year; but I read its placement towards the end of the album’s narrative arc as a step on from the bitterness and frustration of ‘Hard Feelings’ and ‘Green Light’. In ‘Supercut’, Lorde admits her own complicity in the failure of the relationship, while also admitting that she doesn’t know what to do about it – the song ends on the repeated line, “in my head, I do everything right”, like a cry for help, a plea for someone to come along and show her how to do everything right in real life, not just in her head, to fix things.
This is immediately followed by ‘Liability (Reprise)’, which opens with a familiar feeling: “I’m a liability […] you’re a little much for me.” Lorde returns to the idea of ‘Liability’, this time a little more mature, a little more self-aware, able to both take ownership of her own failings and push back on things which are not her responsibility. She recognises that she’s not (at least not entirely) to blame: “but you’re not what you thought you were / liability / but you’re not what you thought you were / much for me.” She begins to let go of “all of the dreams that get harder” – all the ideals she had, that (as we saw in ‘Supercut’) disrupted her relationships by warping her understanding; she lets go, too, of “all of the shit that we harbour”, all the baggage of her past relationships and dreams and disappointments which interferes with her present. The line “all of the things that I offer you” seems to parallel “you wanted something that we offer” in ‘Sober II’, but here she has several – maybe even many – things to offer. Although one of the things that she offers is melodrama, that’s not the only thing, this song argues. Carrying on the extended metaphor of the relationship-as-party from ‘Sober’ and ‘Sober II’, Lorde theorises that, “maybe all this is the party / maybe we just do it violently” (picking up on the idea of “violence” that appears in ‘The Louvre’ as well). She makes her peace with the relationship, with her habit of idealising and overwhelming her partners; with the idea that she is not, quite, what she thought she was, but that she isn’t perfect, either. In ‘Hard Feelings’, she undertook to “fake it every single day ‘til I don’t need fantasy, ‘til I feel you leave”, and at the end of ‘Liability (Reprise)’, she succeeds: the last line of the song is the quiet, un-melodramatic, statement, “you leave.”
Finally, finally, the relationship, the party, is over. The arc of the album is complete, the promise of ‘Green Light’ (“I’m waiting for it / that green light / I want it”), has been fulfilled in ‘Liability (Reprise)’ (“you leave”). And yet, there is one song left. Having made her peace with all these ideas, with her own tendencies and experiences and baggage, Lorde plunges us right back into the middle of the party with this last track. ‘Perfect Places’ encapsulates the album, its occupancy of liminal spaces, its inability to move beyond the petty. The album is called Melodrama, and that’s what it is – the arc might take you through the emotional journey of a break-up and deposit you at the other side, when you “feel [them] leave”, but the album itself has to continue to inhabit that space. It’s not an album about moving on so much as about the almost-moving-on, the process of wanting to move on, the moments just before you actually do “let go”. And therefore, ‘Perfect Places’ is the best note on which to end: once you’ve reached the point of letting go, what do you do? What is left? Before you’ve rebuilt yourself, your dreams, but after you’ve realised that “you’re not what you thought you were”, what are you? Once you’re lost and your heroes have faded, the only way to temporarily feel better is to party: to “live and die” every night; to shore up experiences against the abyss that threatens to overwhelm; to take someone home because you “can’t stand to be alone”; to dance because it’s the only thing that makes you feel alright.
Melodrama offers a kind of grace. It lets you be, and be with, yourself, when you have nothing else. When you are cast adrift, when everything and everyone you knew or thought you knew or thought you loved or thought loved you are gone, when you are stripped bare and left alone. When you have no choice but to carry on; when you have no choice but to stop. Lorde has been there before, and she is with you now. She commiserates and celebrates. She stands there in her weirdness and is weird, and invites you to be weird, too. She invites you to break down the things you thought you were and loved and believed and trusted, and encourages you to build them back up – later. For now, it’s enough to inhabit the melodrama of youth; to live and die; to feel the party to your bones. To get lost, and to get angry at the world for letting you get lost. To demand to know, what the fuck are perfect places anyway?
Words by Nicky Watkinson
Illustrations by Ed Sear