All pop sells a fantasy, and Lorde’s music is no different. What sets it apart is the peculiar quality of the fantasy on offer: It’s the fantasy of escaping from pop, or at the very least the gaudier images and baser longings associated with it. “Royals,” the song that launched her career, traces her preferred movement: a disengagement from the excesses of pop (“Gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom, bloodstains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel room”) into a drive toward a relationship whose privacy is a proof of its authenticity. In place of the sprawling court of pop kings and queens, she sets out the vision of a court, and courtship, composed of only two, alone together.
Some ambivalence persists: the “jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash” are described with more precision than complete distaste would permit. When she concludes her chorus with “Let me live that fantasy,” it’s hard not to think that the fantasy the singer strives for wasn’t quite as simple or limited as the thought of two lovers getting away from the maddening crowd. Royalty isn’t possible without masses of onlookers: Lorde’s genius on “Royals” and Pure Heroine was to crown herself a pop princess by pretending it was easy.
Though charming as a debut, repeating the act wouldn’t just be dishonest, but tacky and stunted as well; thankfully, Lorde’s second album, Melodrama, demonstrates that she’s sharp enough to move on to new tones and perspectives. Instead of longing after a budding romance, she’s looking back on one fading or recently past. The stateliness of Pure Heroine has given way to partial dishevelment; that collection’s sparse, icy arrangements have yielded to warmer, more danceable, and more dynamic arrays of sound and feeling, as exemplified by “Supercut,” Melodrama’s best track.
The basic structure of “Royals” remains largely intact: elaboration of an image, followed by immersion, followed by a pulling away, and once again the image is framed by pop machinery — the cinematic montage of the title, a radio turned up, continents and cars, stages and stars. But it’s personal experience, not pop-star luxury, that forms the image itself; the drama of the song is driven not by thoughts of public stature, but of private loss.
Joined to production at once pulsing and rippling, the backward-gazing lyrics generate a sense of compulsive agony over love’s end that somehow feels as giddy as its beginning, and consequently twice as wrenching. As Feist, with whom Lorde has much in common, once put it, “the saddest part of a broken heart isn’t the ending so much as the start.” The fantasy of “Supercut” is born from memory: Love was real, and now it’s really over, and it’s time to write a song people can shed tears to in the club. It’s fitting that the song will be a single to remember for a long time to come.