Where: Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY
On: 9:58 p.m. Off: 11:02 p.m.
Crowd: All stripes—a mom with her eight year-old to tatted out bros, and everything in between.
Industry Presence: Light. This gravy train's already
Spotted: Orange is the New Black's Dasha Polanco, taking pictures with fans.
Overheard: "I just moved to New York, like, four months ago!...Williamsburg, obviously!"
Basically: An impressive, charismatic performance that shows Lorde already outgrowing her material, only held back by muddy vocal mixes and unnecessary backing tracks.
"It's been real. Or it's been weird. Can I say it's been weird?" Lorde shrugged at the audience towards the end of Thursday night's show. The crowd cheered a light approval, and to be fair, Lorde was referring to the space—Greenpoint's old Polish cultural center, Warsaw, a ballroom doubling as a music venue—but the sentiment worked on a few levels.
In the last week, the 16 year old New Zealand-born's buzzy debut LP Pure Heroine dropped, and her jazzy bling-averse anthem "Royals" took the top spot on the Billboard 100, making her the youngest person to do so in 26 years. And Girls-set Greenpoint, Brooklyn isn't a typical host for whichever artist has the top Billboard 100 single at any given moment. In fact, it was probably among a handful of times (if not, the only time) it's ever happened.
But Lorde, who emerged on stage last night looking like a art-school goth ready to hit the club—wearing something like a three-sizes-too-big black smock with a skin-tight black leather jumper under it—isn't your typical Billboard 100 star. For one thing, she's from New Zealand, whose most popular recent music export is Flight of the Conchords. For another, she's had a record deal since she was 13. And she's recording pop songs that resemble less the triumphant power pop of Katy Perry (whose offer for an opening tour slot she recently rejected) and more the downbeat, muddy R&B of The xx. That isn't to say she didn't bring out a pop crowd—pushy Murray Hill exports, Brooklyn neophytes, kids with parents, and the occassional middle-aged bro—who mostly lit up at Lorde's big hits, and started to empty out after "Royals," two songs from the show's end.
Opening with The Love Club EP's opening rainy-day Gregorian croon "Bravado" and following with the same record's slinky drum-and-bass number, "Biting Down," Lorde quickly engaged in an atypically mature, charismatic performance, spending a lot of time with a thumb and one finger wrapped around the mic, drawing in the air with her other hand, taking Stevie Nicks-esque stagger stops to hit her higher notes, like Linda Blair's demon grooving to heavy bass hits, as provided by a DJ/keyboardist and drummer, thumping out Lorde's dark, smoky production grooves in all of their muddy glory. They occassionally came at the expense of Lorde's vocals, which served as a serated, high-note cut through those bass-heavy sound textures, but she demonstrated that there's more in those pipes than her records have to offer. "Royals," which she's clearly already sick of, was sang through gritted teeth, as was her cover of The Replacements' "Swingin Party," both songs taking on stronger textures with angrier growl than anything on the record itself. Especially of note was the way Lorde, who owned her crowd for "Royals," took the mature route of not letting the audience take on vocal tasks for her, instead choosing to sing the entire song—and chorus—herself, and opting out of the hammed-up route.
For better or for worse, Lorde's live performance of the moment is just going to throw fuel to the fire for those skeptics, but it might also burn them down, too.
But that's the problem: Lorde's already owning all of her material in ways that far outshine the way it's been recorded, as opposed to having a live performance that augments it. If you thought 16 year-old Lorde was mature for her age on the record, the one that's performing Pure Heroine's songs is far beyond it. Her teens-telling-secrets anthem "Tennis Courts"—the second single off of Pure Heroine—delivered on a new dimension of desperation the song doesn't have on the record, that of someone trying to break out of the place she has firmly cemented herself commercially: At the top. It elicited an incredibly telling moment, when Lorde sings about how soon "I'll be getting on my first plane," which elicted a huge cheer from the crowd, at which the singer looked up from under the drapery of her hair, and smirked. Nothing more. Maybe it's a thrill for you, but Lorde's way, way past that one.
It might explain decisions like choosing Kanye West's "Hold My Liquor" as a cover song, which she turns up a few tempo notches and gives her the chance to pepper the mic and stamp out a song with the line "Bitch! I'm back out my coma," but not much more. It was more interesting than it was, say, captivating, and didn't really win or lose the crowd. But as Lorde grows into her career, and begins to resemble those goth-pop acts who came before her—Shirley Manson, Poe, Fiona Apple, and Portishead, to name a few—she might have to make a call between being an answer to the bling aesthetic she struggles with on "Royals" or being something less systematically attached to preexisting pop aesthetics.
"Glory and Gore"
"Swingin Party" (Replacements cover)
"Hold My Liquor" (Kanye West cover)
"White Teeth Teens"
"A World Alone"
Part of that's gonna require taking the training wheels off: Lorde's vocals criss-crossed over a pre-recorded vocal track of her own harmonies and choruses, which occassionally cut into most of her low notes and some of her sultry, gymnastic higher notes, which she would slow her body contortions to hit (the beat-rap of "Ribs" was a particularly bad victim of this track). But when she pushed back against these vocal tracks, she pushed back hard. The killing-time-with-boys serenade of "400 Lux" went places in the high registers the record only hints at, and dives back down into the bassy talk-interludes of the bridge, high wire vocal theatrics.
As the show ended, Lorde bowed to the audience, hands clasped, with a petit "Thank you, everyone in this room"—typical of her mostly sparse crowd banter—before moving into Pure Heroine closer "A World Alone." The sentiment seemed oddly genuine. In the universe Lorde occupies—as a major label act, who's been signed since she was a kid, who has shot to the top of the BIllboard charts with a song that both embraces and refutes the cynical oily sheen of everything else in mass-marketed pop culture right now—the genuine is an indisputably rare commodity (which is to say nothing of the burgeoning and idiotic Lorde Truther movement, people conspiratorial about her age as less a matter of math and more one of marketing). Of course it's going to yield some skepticism.
For better or for worse, Lorde's live performance of the moment is just going to throw fuel to the fire for those skeptics, but it might also burn them down, too. She's already matured well beyond these songs in both theme and ability, but she isn't yet fully unleashed from pop music backstops. That's not to say she isn't trying to get away from them, but she might also be hiding from her ambitions in the face of all of this success. During her cover of "Hold My Liquor," she rapped the verse facing the side of the stage, as if she didn't want anyone to see the weird fun she was having. At slower moments as she'd ramp up to hit high notes, she'd ocassionally bend forward, her long dark curls completely draped around her face, as though shying away from an audience she was about to lay high vocals into, the kind of thing they maybe didn't come expecting, the kind of thing only hinted at briefly on her record. It's hard not to think she's under there, grinning, waiting for the next step. Here's hoping that's the case.