By: Chris Hope
On October 12, 2013, Miley Cyrus’ then-controversial “Wrecking Ball” lost its two-week streak of topping the Billboard Hot 100 to a New Zealander relatively unknown to the United States named Ella Lani Yelich-O’Connor — Lorde. “Royals” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a consecutive nine weeks, though its impact and what it foretold can still be felt in the pop music scene today.
Now, I will admit that I have a large bias when it comes to Lorde’s work; she is quite possibly my favorite solo artist of all time. There is just something about her work which sticks to me, and I intend to just try and explain why in this review and in a likely future one for her sophomore title Melodrama. This album, Pure Heroine, was home to four singles, two of which hit the top ten of the Hot 100; “Royals” and “Team”. Despite the popularity of these two singles, this album has so much more to offer in its minimalistic instrumentation — rare at the time of its release — and themes of aging and moving on in life.
Pure Heroine opens with “Tennis Court”, an excellent opener for the album. Immediately, Lorde asks the listener “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?”, establishing the album’s themes of considering oneself an outcast, different from the rest. She continues this idea in the chorus, where she named the titular tennis court as a place where she (alongside her fellow outcast-types) can safely talk and hang out. She also begins to hint at the concepts of aging and moving on in life; the second chorus begins with her singing “Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane / I’ll see the veins of my city like they do in space”. Lorde was 16 at the time of Pure Heroine’s release, and with the release of the album (and her prior EP, the Love Club) she was suddenly propelled into international stardom. Though not discussed as in-depth as it is later in the album, these lines show that the changes which life brings are often sudden, and can detach oneself from that which they deemed their identity — Lorde is struggling between being the outcast introvert and being the up-and-coming pop star.
Two tracks later, you can find “Royals”, undeniably Lorde’s most well-known song. “Royals” was a response to the pop landscape and materialism of the time. The first verse describes her un-acquaintance with riches such as diamonds wedding rings; she doesn’t live in a big city like LA, she lives in a little-known Auckland suburb. This furthers the album’s themes; she doesn’t live the life depicted in popular culture nor does she think that that opulence is necessary. She and her friends are comfortable with the lives they lead, “[They] don’t care; [they] didn’t come from money.” This is the dichotomy of Pure Heroine. Lorde herself has achieved this level of stardom which she critiques, yet she doesn’t want to separate from her roots. She might have been propelled to this pedestal, but she’s still the same person she was back in New Zealand. The production of “Royals” is extremely minimalistic, a far cry from the in-your-face pop which dominated much of the pop scene at the time (just take a look at Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP). While “Royals” isn’t the sole reason for this happening, it can be said that this song helped influence much of pop music today—vocally, Lana Del Rey and Lorde influenced artists such as Halsey, Melanie Martinez, and Troye Sivan while instrumentally much of the darker tones found in modern pop music can be attributed to Lorde and her contemporaries.
The track immediately following “Royals” is “Ribs”. I will be completely frank here — “Ribs” is my second-most played song on Spotify of all time. I don’t know the exact number of times I’ve listened to this song, but if I had a dollar for every time I’ve listened to it I could have bought my way into an Ivy. Listening to “Ribs” at 1 AM is an emotion in itself. “Ribs” begins with a consistent buzz that underscores an ethereal hum, increasing in volume. Lorde begins singing, and everything is hushed beyond a simple beat and her voice, allowing one to focus especially on her lyricism. The structure of the song is simple: there’s a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus which is simply two repetitions of the first verse, a different verse, the same pre-chorus, that second verse repeated twice, a bridge, and an outro. There are only about five lyrically unique stanzas in the song, but she doesn’t need more than what she has. The repetitions are delivered with more emotion and Lorde’s vocals are harmonized.
Lyrically, “Ribs” deals heavily with nostalgia; lines such as “It drives you crazy getting old” and “And I’ve never felt more alone / It feels so scary getting old” complete the verses, and though Lorde was only 16 when this song was released, these lyrics contain a sense of maturity. It might seem laughable that a 16-year old considers herself to be “getting old”, but she captures such strong nostalgia. Her future is uncertain, she doesn’t know who will be by her side, and she wishes she could go back in time; to a simpler time. She sings that “This dream isn’t feeling sweet,” and that dream is the concept of growing older. The build-up of emotion in the second chorus is released with the bridge, singing “I want ‘em back / The minds we had / It’s not enough to feel the lack”. She longs for this return to simplicity and escape from the marching-on of time, and she finally gets to admit this. Now, the outro is where I break down:
You’re the only friend I need / Sharing beds like little kids / We’ll laugh until our ribs get tough / But that will never be enough
Again, this is a confession to the “you” she is writing to; she cherishes these moments of nostalgia, those times where you are so caught up in happiness love for your friends that everything else is forgotten. However, she recognizes that this moment won’t last—change happens. I could write so much more about “Ribs” alone, but this is an article about Pure Heroine and the full experience of “Ribs” needs to be heard to be understood.
The rest of the track list is home to such songs as “Team” and “White Teeth Teens”, both of which discussing that dichotomy of fame and having humble origins. “We live in cities you’ll never see onscreen / Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things”. She’s not from these movie-famous cities like New York or LA, but she’s still proud of where she’s from and the people there. Her friends aren’t rich nor do they conform to beauty standards, but that’s okay.
Call all the ladies out, they’re in their finery / A hundred jewels on throats / A hundred jewels between teeth / Now bring my boys in, their skin in craters like the moon.
“White Teeth Teens” also focuses on these perceived standards of beauty, using the metaphor of “white teeth teens” as the popular, mainstream look. She and her crowd aren’t used to popularity or polish, and adjusting to this they realize that they “wouldn’t be seen dead here in the day / I guess you’re lucky that it’s dark now”. She’s popular now, but she still doesn’t want to separate from her roots.
Pure Heroine’s standard edition ends with “A World Alone”, which serves as an excellent album closer. “A World Alone” is a love song, and Lorde expresses a vulnerability in this song. “I feel grown up with you in your car / I know it’s dumb” exemplifying this self-aware vulnerability. Repeated throughout the song are the lyrics “The people are talking”, a reference to the overwhelming noise an introvert feels in a crowded room. “All my fake friends and all of their noise / Complain about work / They’re studying business, I study the floor” is another recognition of this introversion, but it isn’t shamed. She sings to her listener, “You’re my best friend and we’re dancing in a world alone”, juxtaposing the idea of togetherness and loneliness. The song (and thus, the album as a whole) ends with Lorde repeating “The people are talking” as the chatter of a crowd can be heard gaining volume. Finally, Lorde ends the album with the simple, a capella line: “Let ‘em talk”. Thus, she has gone through a journey, answering that question which was the album’s first line: “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?”.
Pure Heroine was a successful album, but I feel that it is rarely looked at holistically — usually, people will look at “Royals” and its influence on modern music, but never touch upon anything else contained within the album. In this album, Lorde explored topics of aging and nostalgia at length. She was only 17 at the time of the album’s release, leaving school to promote the album, and her sophomore album Melodrama was released when she was 20; she is wise beyond her years and has been displaying her emotional growth for the world to see. For some, this display of openness is catharsis; for some, listening to “Ribs” alone at 1 AM after a great night out with friends can help you process the changes in life and appreciate what you have.