Auckland, New Zealand’s pop sensation Ella Yelich-O’Connor—stage name Lorde—first signed a record deal at age 13, and it wasn’t long before it began to pay dividends in confidence for the young talent. Last year’s The Love Club EP spawned the worldwide hit “Royals,” meaning the now 16-year-old singer can tout both a chart-topping hit and a follow-up—“Tennis Court”—that was picked up by Wimbledon among the 10 tracks on her proper full-length debut. Pure Heroine is a scattered, but preternaturally gifted album, charting the rise of a new teen phenom with enough awareness to navigate crossover success with aplomb.
The narrative surrounding Lorde has, at times, threatened to overshadow her music. She once alluded to Taylor Swift when discussing how Photoshopped images create poor role models for young girls, which led to Swift fans calling her out for a perceived attack. One of her songs upset Miley Cyrus and she was flooded by hate mail. And until recently she hadn’t performed outside her native New Zealand and maintained a certain level of mystique—a line in “Tennis Court” claims she’s never been on a plane before—she has consistently connected with fans by answering questions on her Tumblr. Lorde’s appeal is that she’s new to the fame game, not yet the contradictory mash of artistic endeavor and corporate construction, able to demonstrate an emerging intellect as well as make expected mistakes.
It’s helpful, then, that Pure Heroine backs up her tentative forays into public relations with some of the catchiest songs of the year. On this record, Yelich-O’Connor’s voice is the alpha and omega of her talent. She has the presence and vocal development of singers more than twice her age. Her voice isn’t booming or overpowering, but rather mystifying and alluring, both floating on its own in a sea of reverb and digital blips and awash in an army of chorused overdubs.
That being said, it’s hard to pick what’s best on Pure Heroine: the pristine and forceful production, Yelich-O’Connor’s voice, or her cheeky-yet-purposeful lyrics. That all three of those elements are so strong indicates Lorde’s promise. Aside from the aforementioned two big hits, next single “Team” is the other club-ready, sparkly thumper, whipping in disaffected lines like “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air.” “Buzzcut Season” begins as fierce minimalism along the lines of The XX, but then adds a much-needed bottom end that shows an awareness that those styles have limitations. “White Teeth Teens” contains a pounding drum cadence that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Adele record.
“Ribs” is perhaps the best illustration of Yelich-O’Connor’s gifts, especially when matched with those of producer Joel Little. The muffled beat throbs along, lulling the listener into a trance while the cascading vocals illustrate a portrait of the girl behind the voice before she was thrust in the spotlight and forced to contend with life on a scale not previously considered: “This dream isn’t feeling sweet / We’re reeling through the midnight streets / And I’ve never felt more alone / It feels so scary getting old.” It’s the same sentiment echoed by John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity: “Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at the age of 26.” But Yelich-O’Connor is a decade younger than that and still expressing anxiety and disillusion. This isn’t typical teenage angst, though; Lorde takes the whims of a teenage girl and puts them in direct conflict with her becoming an international star overnight.
“Royals” may casually dismiss the braggadocio of hip-hop and rock excess, but it’s not like these things aren’t on Lorde’s mind—her Love Club EP track “Million Dollar Bills” begins with the line “There’s nothing I want but money and time.” Late on Pure Heroine, though, the sparse ballad “Still Sane” grapples with her ambition and fears of how fame will affect her. She sings, “I still like hotels, but I think that’ll change” and then, seconds later, says, “I’m little, but I’m coming for the crown.” Lorde doesn’t want to be endearing or cute with her goals, but she’s also conflicted by her inexperience and interest in the shroud of mystery surrounding acts like Burial and The Weeknd.
In an editorial that ran in a New Zealand Sunday magazine, Yelich-O’Connor quoted Patti Smith relating advice she received from William S. Burroughs about the strength that lies within an artist’s name becoming their cultural currency. “Every step I’ve taken… has been to ensure I am exactly who I want to be, perceived how I’d like to be perceived.” Lorde is image-conscious, but not business-oriented with that image. She’s a hot IPO screaming to the top of the charts, but she says the right things about the double standard surrounding the perception of craft-minded female pop stars. Whatever the future holds for Yelich-O’Connor—now that she’s getting on planes and performing around the world, it’s on her mind even more than on this record—she doesn’t have to worry about the music. Pure Heroine makes the strongest possible statement that she belongs.