Review: Pure Heroine – Lorde

Lorde wants you to know that she’s different. Much has been made of the fact that “Royals,” her platinum-selling breakout hit, was inspired by a cool disdain for the bling rhetoric of “jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash” which Lorde felt dominated the pop landscape as she grew up in New Zealand. Certainly its opening claim, “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” can’t help but seem like an arch rejoinder to chart queen Rihanna. There’s nothing new, of course, about youthful rebellion against an ostensibly monolithic culture, but “Royals” almost feels like a watershed moment: the very deliberate cross-pollination that has characterized chart pop since rap and (more recently) electronic dance music encroached upon its sales is ingrained in the 16-year-old Lorde. It feels entirely organic that she expresses her anti-materialist sentiment over a sparse backing owing much to hip-hop and also drawing on the lo-fi aesthetic typical of British post-dubstep artists like Burial, The xx and James Blake.

Lorde’s story so far has more than the whiff of a more iconic British artist around it. Like Kate Bush, she was discovered as a teenager and has been mentored until her emergence on the scene, seeming fully formed and sounding quite unlike anything else around. The confident introspection of “Royals” is typical of Lorde’s debut, Pure Heroine, an album which is striking in its precocious self-awareness.  It shouldn’t seem so unusual that a teenager can be so articulate, of course – perhaps expectations have been corrupted by the asinine gloss of contemporary teenage artists such as Justin Bieber and One Direction. Whatever the reason, it’s disarming to hear Lorde’s smouldering voice singing lyrics that convey an authentic and engaging honesty. Her difference is no teenage pose, then, and being as savvy as she is talented Lorde draws attention to this contrast at several points throughout the album – most notably in “Team” where she drily notes “I’m kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air…so there.”

Aside from distinguishing herself from mainstream pop Lorde also draws on more traditional ideas of the outsider, with the album from its title onwards portraying an eagerness for a life lived beyond traditional mores. By the time we get to the big reveal of penultimate track “White Teeth Teens” we know what’s coming: “I’ll let you in on something big – I’m not a white teeth teen.”  This ‘I’m not like other girls’ shtick rarely falls into cliché, however, with Lorde’s words frequently seeming more literary than lyrical (her mother is a poet and she has spoken of being influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver). The wry “Buzzcut Season”, for example, would make Dorothy Parker proud while the opaque love story of “400 Lux” hinges on delightful lines like “I love these roads where the houses don’t change (and I like you)”.  For all the tales of messy romance and allusions to dysfunction, however, the conquering fantasies of “Still Sane” (“I’m little but I’m coming for the crown”) suggest a steely ambition and assurance which fundamentally separate her from the simpering subordination of the oft-cited in comparison Lana Del Rey.

The music quite rightly gives these dazzling lyrics ample space to be noticed. Sparse electronic backing couches Lorde’s vocals on most of these songs and “Royals’” trick of multi-tracking the chorus is repeated to the point of overuse. Nonetheless there is novelty here: the club-friendly “Ribs” repeats its mid-tempo verses as more frenetic choruses riding on a 4/4 beat, an unusual but inspired touch, while an observation that “the sun’s starting to light up when we’re walking home’ is met in the final syllable by a gloriously evocative harmony line in “Glory and Gore”. “Team”, with its Robyn-esque radio-friendly melancholia, is perhaps the most conventional pop song here yet it begins with a processed acapella vocal which becomes more distorted until it loops and falls beneath crunchy drums. The songs unravel like tightly wound coils, bursting with energy and never outstaying their welcome. On paper the starkness should be repetitive but Pure Heroine riffs on a very deliberate, expansive severity. When the closing “A World Alone” adds guitar and sound effects to its dynamic drum patterns and looped vocals, it doesn’t feel like a revelation.

This final song includes a lyric which is destined to be much quoted: “maybe the internet raised us or maybe people are jerks.” That sharp and witty response to the ‘Generation Me Me Me’ handwringing perfectly captures Lorde’s appeal for a generation undoubtedly tired of being spoken for.  In Lorde they, and indeed we, have a compelling, articulate and contemporary voice. Pure Heroine is most certainly only the beginning.

4.5/5

The likelihood of a literature critic defending a piece by an intern expressing ignorance of Shakespeare, or Yeats, or Dickens, or whomever – pretty much zero. This is just another anti-‘authenticity’ diatribe which treats pop music as a lesser art form. What is a ‘canon’, after all? A body of work which is generally accepted as being a) hugely influential and b) of outstanding artistic merit. It provides a context, a shared history and even, yes, something to react against. I wrote more about this here.

The argument against “the belief that an objective response is possible” is a deeply disingenuous one, particularly coming from a critic. It’s premised on the mistaken belief that criticism consists of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ responses and should instead solely consist of ‘did I as an individual listener like this?’. The latter, of course, makes all criticism utterly pointless and redundant. It’s a sleight-of-hand move, someone denying their privileged platform, shrugging at their craft. Because at its best, criticism is an art. It tells us about the work in hand, yes, but also about our culture, our history, ourselves. People don’t remember great critics because they were ‘right’, they remember them because they cared passionately about their chosen subject, brought enthusiasm and knowledge to bear on it, illuminated it in new ways, pushed it forward. In short, they did not merely write ‘This is good’. They had more respect for their craft than that. This is why people found that NPR intern piece so awful – less that the writer was unaware of Public Enemy, more that they positively revelled in their ignorance and showed absolutely no curiosity about it. Any fledgling critic dismissing ‘classic’ works in a genre they claim to love because they were released “before I was even born!” is off to a terrible start in their career of writing about art for others. Really, what are they going to offer other than ‘I like this’? Again, no theatre critic with an avowed interest in modernist drama would snottily dismiss Brecht because of when his work was written. That’s not to say that they would necessarily love Brecht, they simply would not revel in the fact that they were ignorant of him.

The argument that criticism should consist of an individual response to an individual work, stripped of any attempts at context, is a very capitalistic one. It sees an album as a product to be consumed, the review as akin to an Amazon rating for a blender. “It did the job well”. Any critic who thinks they have nothing exceptional to offer, who celebrate being ‘just a listener like anyone else’, who patronisingly congratulate ‘young’ writers for their self-gratifying ignorance, should clear out of their privileged platforms.

Public Enemy are rubbish? If only more classic albums got this treatment …

It’s somehow fitting that Cohen’s new album should be due on the last day of January. It catches the despondency of the first month of the year while being in that almost-glorious period when you’re not quite so skint and the new dawn of February is near. Cohen tends to find some humour, however black and however resigned, in his darkness (and the darkness does tend to be greatly overstated anyway). He is very rarely difficult to listen to; very frequently witty, provocative, entertaining and moving. Sometimes all in the same song. He also often manages a righteous ire about the world without drawing the wrath of those who dislike ‘statements’. His live album from London a couple of years back is one of my all-time favourites – after 2 hours in his company you wish it was a regular engagement.

This piece raises the question of whether the ‘old’ can write pop. I always find this to be a very strange thing to ask, involving so many assumptions and pre-conceptions (the number of young artists making dreadful pop surely dwarves the number of old ones?) With classic songwriters of the kind Jones lists, it seems obvious that their new songs would reflect their advancing years and younger listeners would perhaps struggle to find things in them to identify with. However artists like Bowie, Dylan, Elton John and McCartney have certainly produced great albums past their 50s – indeed, it’s of note that they are all of a generation which tended towards producing their worst material in the 80s when they were in their late 30s and 40s. If there is any narrative to be had of this generation (who are, lest we forget, those who largely blazed the trail for ‘pop’ as we currently understand it) it is of a rise, a reign, a decline and finally a satisfied and satisfying acceptance of their position, status and age.

Such questions do always tend to involve the ‘classic’ songwriters and ignore artists who continue to be ‘current’ on the pop charts. Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’ and ‘4 Minutes’, released when she was 47 and 50 respectively, are (chart-wise) the most successful singles of her career. For all the debates over when artists such as she, U2, Prince or REM were at their peak, few without pre-determined chips would claim they had produced nothing of note in their latter years. There can be no doubt that as time progresses, the number of middle-aged and ‘old’ artists on the charts is only going to increase – from Kylie and Jennifer Lopez in the next decade through to Gaga, Beyonce and Rihanna, it would be a fool who bets against more and more great pop being produced by near-pensioners in the next thirty years.

The neat response to the question? Cohen was 50 when he released ‘Hallelujah’, the song which 20 years later became a number one for Alexandra Burke. Few would have anticipated such a thing at the time – who knows what treasures pop artists of the future might find on his new album?

Leonard Cohen is a rare thing: a pop grandfather who just gets better with age

Levelling

Immersed as I am in pop music (and with the other music I listen to generally being things I get online with no intermediaries, and not being artists people tend to chat to me about) I had almost forgotten the idiotic music snobbery that exists out there. In recent years I have come into contact far more with an inverse snobbery, where pop fans sneer at boys with guitars and bristle at any suggestion that a dumb pop star miming to a generic dance song they didn’t write is any less artistically valid than The Beatles. So reading Twitter during Beyonce’s headline slot at Glastonbury was a sad reminder of the more traditional snobbery out there.

Meaningless cliches like ‘proper music’ were bandied about with a depressing inevitability and there was an avalanche of people writing moronic comments about artists writing songs and playing instruments. Because clearly a female pop star who can dance couldn’t possibly write songs (people still argue that Madonna is ‘talentless’ after 25 years of writing some of the most iconic pop songs in history!) Because clearly Northern Uproar or Cast were ‘proper bands’ whereas Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, Frank Sinatra or Elvis are all talentless cretins.

I’m not someone who seeks to level all popular music – I can appreciate the unique connection that exists with an artist who sings their own material, providing it’s done well. I also recognise the difference between the latter artists I mentioned above and other artists who not only don’t write their own songs, but can’t particularly sing either. In the end it’s about that connection and whether it’s done well. People who get bogged down in analysing how a song was made before they will allow themselves to enjoy it or view it as valid are people I feel sorry for.