Lorde, real name Ella Yelich-O’Connor, has been compared to several people, mostly fellow women artists that she doesn’t much sound like. If we’re going to bother making comparisons, I’d argue that she’s most like a female counterpoint to The Streets’ Mike Skinner. Both write gritty stories about precious time lost. Time moves slowly when you’re young, but around adolescence it starts to really run away. The stars of Lorde’s music could reasonably be the key players in Mike Skinner’s vignettes. The protagonist of Skinner’s “It’s Too Late” is a girl who waits in vain for Skinner — young, self-involved, distractible, beholden to his mates, Skinner never shows up for their date. She could very well be another side of Lorde, but Lorde of course gets to be center stage in her own music, not singing a regretful refrain in the background. She is the star, but more importantly, the artist: she gets to animate and organize herself and her players the way she wants to. And as with Skinner’s music, there is darkness behind all this larking. There is anxiety, guilt, and fear.
Lorde preserves adolescence, that endlessly malleable time of life, by writing about the types of experiences that arise from impressionability, from following one’s bewitching friends, or, maybe, from being that bewitching friend to others. In Lorde’s case she is undoubtedly the quiet observer, a follower, but a beloved one. She is fascinated by her friends; they are her muses.
Think of that friend you had who smoked before everyone else, who suddenly made it cool to smoke cigarettes: you wanted to share in that slow poisoning with them. Suffering in solidarity almost seemed to cancel out the suffering. At the core of Lorde’s music is solidarity in the face of constant change — emotional, physical, intellectual, economic. A dependability shared by two or more people, which stands apart from the ambiguous rest of things: romantic feelings vs. platonic feelings, whether one feels more than the other, whether or not you come from similar families or you share the same goals or opinions or dreams. There are shared experiences, and the sharing is all that matters. Not the future, not even what will happen hours from this moment. It doesn’t matter that these friends never do anything very exciting, rebellious, or bad with each other. The point is that whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it together. They are not rich, they are not powerful, they are not free. But they have created a “kingdom,” one of Lorde’s favorite metaphors, and our singer feels, at least sometimes, that she is queen of it. Her name best captures her role: not “lady,” the female equivalent of “lord,” but simply “lord” with an ‘e’ on the end.
It comes as no surprise, to me at least, that before she started writing songs, Lorde wrote short fiction. The songs are perhaps more satisfying to her than the stories were — more evocative, more memorable (she describes “Ribs” in an interview as making her “feel warm”). In her lyrics she carries metaphors to poetic and sometimes dazzling conclusions. On “Team” she sings: “Now bring my boys in / their skin in craters like the moon / the moon we love like a brother / while he glows through the room.”
It’s hard to find a focal point on Pure Heroine. Each song is part and parcel of the same idea, an impressionistic chapter of a book with no real arc, just a clearly limned atmosphere. But I’ll go with my personal favorite and Lorde’s: “Ribs.” The song is about the idea that at any given time you have at least one person who’s there for you. You may feel like losers, you never do anything exciting, you cause trouble only on a small scale, if at all, but you have each other. The song builds to this sweet, excitingly ambiguous conclusion: “You’re the only friend I need / Sharing beds like little kids / we’ll laugh until our ribs get tired / but that will never enough.”
The song is about goofing off, skipping school, at least on the surface. “Mum and dad let me stay home” evokes the classic American truant, Ferris Bueller, but there is something solemn and almost hopeless about this day off that Lorde shares with the “only friend she needs.” They’re trying to reproduce the past, and not even a distant past, but probably their most recent summer vacation or some other mercurial blob of time when it was just the two of them. Is there some “promise” the way there seemed to be in Ferris Bueller, some American dream waiting on the other side of this spun-out day? No, lest we forget Lorde’s characters “live in cities you’ll never see on screen,” as she told us on “Team.” And on “Ribs,” she is mostly backward-looking, focusing on a longing for the beginning of adolescence, for a time when innocence wasn’t invaded by more conflicting thoughts and responsibilities: “I want them back / the minds me had / it’s not enough to feel the lack / I want them back, I want them back.”
This same friend appears to be the star of “Buzzcut Season,” and she sublimates her affection for him into metaphors again: “I remember when your head caught flame / it kissed your scalp and caressed your brain.” Again there is denial, an unwillingness to move forward or do what is expected. The news, she sings, is filled with cynicism, hopelessness, so the singer and her friends just ignore it, hang out at a pool. But behind it all, even these young, relatively innocent people feel some dread, the insidious burden of adult life. But for now: “Favorite friend / and nothing’s wrong but nothing’s true / I live in a hologram with you.”
Of course there’s a slightly anxiety-inducing irony behind all this: that in writing these perceptive, catchy and emotionally resonant songs, Lorde has catapulted herself into the faux-adulthood where many teen pop stars have fearfully tread. Will these fixations on markers of prestige like “white teeth” and Cadillacs, on and the haves and have-nots, little New Zealand and the big, fancy places Lorde and her friends watch “on screen,” give way to fixations on hotel rooms and the rest of the “finery” that was out of reach on “Royals”? Inevitably. But we can only hope that Lorde quickly returns to her lexicon of urban adolescence in New Zealand. Do writers — which Lorde ultimately is — start writing about limousines and seven-course dinners once they write a bestseller? No, they continue, hopefully, to write about what they know, as opposed to what they do, and are sadly expected to do in a world where their art has been devalued by its hyper-accessibility — namely, go on tour, give up stability in order to almost continually promote themselves. That perpetual transience is, of course, not without its perks. But the perks are not life, not the “different kind of buzz” Lorde has so elegantly immortalized in her music.