by Lily Lyons
There’s been a lot of talk about Lorde’s new music, talk that tends to be in absolutes: she’s labeled either precocious or pretentious, the next great songwriter or a forgettable pop phenomenon. The comments sections of every think piece on her upcoming album Melodrama are equally filled with raving and insecurity. Everyone wants to weigh in on whether the four year wait for a followup to Pure Heroine means we’re about to get something extra special, or that she is one-time wonder struggling to find something new to say. It’s fitting then that Lorde’s latest release, the piano ballad “Liability,” touches on what it’s like to be a passionate twenty something woman trying to be her full self while living under the impact of the public eye.
I first listened to “Liability” while walking from Fenway to back to Berklee, and though I could look up and see the skyscrapers above and the Fens spreading out beside me, I felt like I was curled up in my bedroom at 1:00 AM. I could immediately tell it was a headphones sort of song, the kind that comes alive most when heard alone rather than blasted through speakers. Lorde is a mastermind for detail, which makes me think this sense of intimacy was deliberate. The very start of the track is a mumbled “go for it” and a count off spoken over soft talkback hiss and rustling. By sharing this studio moment Lorde and her producer/ writing collaborator Jack Antonoff are doing the musical equivalent of breaking the third wall: making us aware of the track’s construction process. I could imagine the two them alone in Antonoff’s Brooklyn nest of a studio, working for hours on the smallest, most exacting details: what amount of compression here? What word there? Revealing a piece of the making of the song seemed a bit irreverent to the tradition of pop perfect confections, but it also made me feel that I had been invited into Lorde’s world.
The skeletal piano production supporting Lorde’s vocal on “Liability” is immediately noticeable and gives the song nothing to hide behind. Because of this the smallest changes and inflections carry weight and meaning. When Lorde’s voice gets small and crackling on the words “you’re all going to watch me disappear into the sun,” that is alone is enough to signal an outro. The subtle addition of atmosphere at the tail of the 2nd verse makes the space around Lorde seem to grow and swell in response to the emotion of the lyrics. I was pleased to discover that the piano has a bit of that gorgeous homeliness that make Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th” great: finger nails clicking on the keys, tiny swishes caused by hands switching chords. But post-processing has made it a more chameleonic instrument, swallowed and then abandoned again by rich reverb.
But the thing that really hits hard about “Liability” is the lyrics:
They say, “You’re a little much for me
You’re a liability
You’re a little much for me”
So they pull back, make other plans
I understand, I’m a liability
Get you wild, make you leave
I’m a little much for everyone”
Lorde said in a recent interview with with the New York Times that great pop music allows you to “feel something you didn’t know you needed to feel.” “Liability” articulated something for me that I had been aware of for awhile but hadn’t quite been able to name: the frustration of being told that I am too much. I think all of us at Berklee have had some moment in our lives where we’ve felt this. We saw that look in the eyes of our friends or relatives. Our ambition made less ambitious people uncomfortable. Our vision for ourselves and our music was labeled craziness until we actualized it and then it was suddenly cool. Or our work ethic was mocked in a society that celebrates success but doesn’t talk as much about the sweat—and sometimes loneliness—that is critical to achievement. “Liability” is a song for that feeling: it’s about a breakup but it’s also about being a person who is too much, and owning that rather than becoming less to fit in. Lorde has recognized the beauty of leaning into loneliness and intensity, and bottled up a bit of it in the form of a song.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT LORDE’S NEW MUSIC? LET US KNOW IN THE COMMENTS!