"Don't you think it's boring how people talk?" It's the first line of "Tennis Court," the opening track on New Zealand teenager Lorde's Pure Heroine. It's also one hell of a rhetorical question to open up your debut album with. For one thing, it's an immediate challenge in that whatever comes next should really, really avoid being boring. Besides, don't only boring people get bored?
Maybe not. Because on the list of things Pure Heroine and Lorde (real name: Ella Yelich-O'Connor) have to offer, 'boring' doesn't even remotely register. What does? Invigorating, refreshing, youthful shoegaze-flecked pop, in all the right and unfakeable ways teenage music should be. These are songs about wanting to get out of town ("Tennis Court"), about having mass-produced culture you don't give a shit about shoved in your face (the unmistakable doo-wop of "Royals," the dreary hip-hop of "Team"). It's about drinking with the bad older kids ("400 Lux") and about, of course, aging ("Ribs").
Few pop stars, let alone seventeen-year-old pop stars, can pull off songs about getting old; Lorde does it with panache: "This dream isn't feeling sweet/we're reeling through the midnight streets." But in two lines on "Ribs," Lorde conveys the essential truth of being young while aging: All the things you wished for, like freedom from adults, aren't as great as they initially seemed. And she hasn't even started paying that much in taxes, yet, either. These songs add up to an inverted version of Teenage Dream: Instead of crystalline, saccharine-sweet pop indulging ideas about young love and lust and partying and friends and listening to the radio, Lorde turns inward, and decides that none of it adds up to as much as the dreams about what might be beyond it. In other words: Fuck high school. Fuck relationships. And fuck the radio (incidentally, Lorde recently rejected an offer to open for Katy Perry on tour).
All the catchiness of her razor-sharp choruses aside, or the muffled, hazy production of those tracks that are as of-the-moment as musical ideas get, it's Lorde's voice—an unmistakably smoky croon—that's the real gunpowder in her songs. It drives through lyrical foxtrots and off-beat rhythmic cartwheels, lighting the way through thumping, cavernous beats, headlights in deep fog, as much an atmospheric setting as it is an instrument onto itself. And it retains a great, rare quality among female singers right now: Charisma. From Bobby Gentry to Cat Power and Beth Orton and back, it's nice to hear that the future of pop might not be in American Idol-style show-stopping vocals. Lorde's voice is a triumph against pop triumphalism.
Pure Heroine delivers on the aspiration of its title. It's an album about being a teenager, a great piece of Young Adult Art in the same way The Breakfast Club or The Perks of Being a Wallflower were. Still, you don't have to be a teenager to enjoy it. Or believe it. Or be wowed by it, for that matter. Within Pure Heroine is a world-weary level of songwriting talent and a throaty register that not only lacks precociousness, but that comes complete with a level of believability and realness and almost disturbingly innate talent that accomplished artists twice her age have yet to tap into. The kids aren't alright, and they're so much more, too. —Foster Kamer