I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not that I keep choosing debut albums to review honestly. As I mentioned in my previous review, I love a great debut album, but it’s rare to see a debut that is hailed as the greatest thing an artist has done/will do. Lorde is a rare case. “Well, does Lorde happen to disappoint with her debut?” You may ask. I’m gonna have give that a strong “no”.
(Note: above is the cover for the Japanese edition of the album. I wanted to put it here because Lorde is very pretty)
Pure Heroine is one of the most impressive debut albums of all time. I am extremely convinced that a debut of this caliber only happens every so often, especially in modern pop music. New Zealand native Lorde (who’s real name is Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor), at the ripe age of 16, manages to nail every single element that goes into a successful debut, and then some. The young Ella sounds years older on the album than she actually is, this is definitely a positive seeing as most of the subject matter handled on the album can be considered fairly mature. This is one of those albums that the public hears and immediately asks, “where can this sound be taken?”. That is an hugely difficult question to answer. I think whatever musical road Ella chooses will be the right choice for her voice and for her music; she’s a smart girl and I have nothing but faith that she will choose to progress her sound in a way that is beneficial to her and her fans. As it stands right now there is heavy speculation that points to a Pure Heroine follow-up being released sometime this year.
Pure Heroine, throughout the three years its been on shelves, has proven itself to have immense staying power. Years before I was a Lorde fan, she was a household name. Believe it or not, the music industry doesn’t just hand out heaps of attention to artists who don’t deserve it. Lorde’s debut album is a unique experience. The stripped down soundscapes created throughout the album’s 37 minute run-time (56 with the bonus tracks, I will touch briefly on the album’s length shortly) are the perfect match for Ella’s smoky vocal presence. On tracks like 400 Lux and Still Sane, there’s some interesting contrasts created by her voice and the instrumentals. These back drops of dreamlike instrumentals and beats are both intensified and lessened by Ella’s ethereal vocals. She has certain qualities, like the somewhat coarse texture of her voice and her unique pronunciation of words, that really give Pure Heroine this exotic, unusual flavor. Again, her vocal presence is intense and lends heaps to album’s energy.
Ella’s vocal performance carries the record. Her vocals progress throughout the release, but the base traits stay the same. The base traits of Ella’s voice are such things like her unwillingness to leave the mid-range of her voice. She doesn’t sound monotone (in fact, quite the opposite), though she never attempts any vocal gymnastics she’s not comfortable with. The texture, and accent, of her voice also largely stays the same. Now, she does go from smoky cool on tracks like Tennis Court to having a cocky arrogance on songs here like Glory and Gore; she changes up her attitude and her approach to delivering the lyrics, but never will I mistake the voice behind the songs as being none other than Lorde. I like that aspect. Her voice has room to grow throughout the entire album (which she does utilize that space effectively) but her vocals are so strong and captivating to begin with that she doesn’t feel the need to experiment heavily with styles in her voice. I appreciate the fact that she takes control of her vocals and remains the dominant force on the album.
The run-time of the album and also the pacing is something I want to touch briefly on. The pacing of any album can be a deciding factor on how the whole listening experience plays out. Pure Heroine, to no surprise, is paced beautifully. The album is 37 minutes, and feels like just that, a 37 minute album. Not a minute shorter or longer. It hits the sweet spot of not flying by all too quickly and also never dragging itself down. The pacing wouldn’t flow as well as it does without competent songwriting. Ella, and her producer Joel Little, wrote and composed all of the tracks on the extended edition of the album save for the cover of Swingin Party by The Replacements (which, the extended edition adds 6 songs to the standard edition’s 10). Ella’s talents lie in her rich voice, but also in her songwriting abilities. Each track here flows wonderfully into one another and creates a magically cohesive sound. One of my favorite transitions on the entire album is from confessional White Teeth Teens to the anthem A World Alone. You go from the brilliantly composed lyrics of White Teeth Teens:
“I won’t be smiling but the notes from my admirers
Fill my dashboard just the same, ah-ahah!”
To the melodic demands laid forth in A World Alone, it’s wonderful:
“Raise a glass cause I’m not done saying it!
They all wanna get rough, get away with it.
Let them talk cause we’re dancing in this world alone.”
On the subject of the songwriting, Pure Heroine can flex a dense atmosphere that most artists only dream about having on their debut. This rich atmosphere can partly be attributed to the memorably somber songwriting. Many components of Lorde’s sound come together at all the right times that create the thick atmosphere heard on Pure Heroine. The easiest one to observe is of course Ella’s gloomy voice combined with the bare bones beats of the album. I’ve touched on it quite a bit throughout this review, but having Ella’s defiantly characteristic voice against these deep, bassy sonic landscapes is simply electric. There’s an unadulterated energy that’s emitted from that meeting of the album’s two driving forces. I’d even go as far to say that is what makes this album, hearing Ella’s vocals over those beats creates quite a unique concoction. I don’t want to call the atmosphere heard on Pure Heroine downtrodden, maybe dark would work a little bit better. The atmosphere has a unique sort of antisocial/outcast vibe to it that really helps to deliver a touch more authenticity to some of Lorde’s deeper tracks here (see: A World Alone and Ribs).
I believe there are two main elements that equally construct good songwriting: recognizable lyrics and competent instrumentals. Here and there, there are odd cases where that is not always true, but that idea has held for close to all of the albums I’ve listened to. The lyrics on Pure Heroine are unparalleled for a debut album. My favorite here may as well be the line from White Teeth Teens that I showcased above, but there are plenty of others that are simply genius. Even the bonus tracks from the extended version of the album add quite a few outstanding moments to Pure Heroine’s already eventful lineup of songs. I’ve always loved this line from Bravado (a song originally from her Love Club EP back in 2012) where at first she compares finding her bravado to a quick process, but then she redacts the statement and says it’s something that happens more naturally. She comes to contradict herself again in the song too, it’s an extremely interesting listen:
“It’s a switch flipped,
It’s a pill tipped back, it’s a moon eclipsed the world,
And I can tell you that when the lights come on I’ll be ready for this.
It’s in your bloodstream,
A collision of atoms that happens before your eyes.
It’s a marathon run or a mountain you scale without thinking of size.
The subject matter of Pure Heroine is surprising mature and thought out given a lot of things. Ella must be extremely smart to want to have written about these topics at such a young age (atleast, smarter than I); a lot of the songs here like Tennis Court and Royals deal with class differences and have this underlying theme of aristocracy. In fact, Lorde’s name was inspired by her overwhelming interest in class structure and hierarchy. Other songs here like Team and Still Sane deal with these subjects too, but not to the extent that they’re covered in the opening track, Tennis Court, and Royals. Teeth surprising serve as another reoccurring lyrical topic. The most obvious examples are in White Teeth Teens and No Better. In White Teeth Teens, she equates having pure white teeth to being of nobler birth and of a higher class; while in No Better, she states having all of your front teeth is simply bliss. The one overarching theme in all of Pure Heroine is growing up in a modern, digital world, where things aren’t always as they seem. This is expressed best in Ribs when she states:
“This dream isn’t feeling sweet.
We’re reeling through the midnight streets,
And I’ve never felt more alone,
It feels so scary getting old.”
All of the bonus tracks here are extremely good listens, but my favorites have to be No Better and Million Dollars Bills (Million Dollar Bills is actually my favorite Lorde song); all of the bonus tracks also happen to have loads of great lyrics too. I’ve already looked at Bravado, but I want to take a look at Love Club (another song originally from the Love Club EP. To my knowledge, No Better and Swingin Party were the only two recorded simply for the extended edition). Love Club features pillow like beats and trance inducing backing vocals. Lorde finds a unique flow throughout the song. Her voice dances and skips above the beats at a rapid pace until it finds the chorus. The timing of her voice in the chorus is more laid back than it was in the first verse, but there’s something a little off about the timing. Her voice syncopates extremely well with the beats in the song. It also features some of my favorite Lorde lyrics:
“There’s something about hanging out with the wicked kids.
Take the pill make it too real,
The other day I forgot my old address.
I’m sitting pretty on the throne
There’s nothing more I want
Except to be alone.”
I wish I could go through the entire album and show you all my favorite lyrics from each track, but I’d end up spending way too much time on each song, making this review way longer than it needs to be. Hands down, Pure Heroine has the best lyrics I’ve ever seen for a debut album. I can say this, if you liked the lyrics above, then check out Glory and Gore, Team, 400 Lux, and her breakthrough single, Royals (which is a phenomenal song). If and when Lorde releases the follow-up to Pure Heroine (it is inevitable), she is going to be faced with the monumental task of living up to this album’s glory. Ella gives off this vibe the entire album that she’s been writing and recording songs like this for decades, even though she was only 16 when this album was produced. Not only is she gifted with a unique voice, but she also comes off as just smart enough to pull off tracks here like Still Sane and A World Alone excellently; by that, I mean she sounds very believable throughout tracks like those. I feel like I can relate to Ella as well through Pure Heroine. I believe this was a very personal project for her to put together. It sounds like all the subject matter she deals with throughout the album’s 16 tracks were deeply personal subjects for her, and it definitely shows in her performance.
Hands down, one of the greatest debut albums of all time. This is the kind of album veterans and vanguards of the genre release 15 years into their career, not to kickstart it. I don’t think modern pop music will be graced with such a carefully crafted debut such as this for a long time. Everything here from Ella’s stunning, unique vocal presence, to the deeply intimate lyrics and expertly crafted beats, every element present on the album comes together to make an excellently atmospheric experience. Pure Heroine is one of the greatest debut albums music has practically ever seen. A must own for any fan of pop music.