Focus / No Angel: Charli XCX’s Two-Track Masterpiece

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Charli XCX has two careers. Her top songs on Spotify are “Girls” (by Rita Ora, featuring Charli, Cardi B, and Bebe Rhexa), “Dirty Sexy Money” (by David Guetta, featuring Charli and French Montana), and “Moonlight” (by Lil Xan, featuring Charli). Her most successful album was 2014’s Sucker, which I enjoy, but sounds just about the same as every song on the pop charts at the time. This year, she toured with Taylor Swift (I love Taylor, but I wouldn’t exactly call her innovative), playing her hits like “I Love It,” “Boom Clap,” and “Fancy,” which were all bolstered by soundtracks or memes. Despite what this list of features may look (and sound) like, Charli XCX is also one of the most innovative and unique popstars making music today, and there’s no better proof of this than her two-track pop masterpiece “Focus / No Angel.”.

In 2017, Charli XCX released two mixtapes largely produced by PC Music’s A.G. Cook and SOPHIE, which harken back the more experimental bent of her early mixtapes and debut album, True Romance. The tapes sound like the pop music of the future and heavily feature other loves of the alt-pop scene including Carly Rae Jepsen, Cupcakke, Brooke Candy, Tove Lo, and ABRA. This year, she has expanded on this alternative catalog with a series of singles including “5 in the Morning,” “Girls Night Out,” “1999,” and finally, “Focus / No Angel.” This two-track single is my 24th most listened to “album” of the last year with 122 plays and counting. Again, it’s only two tracks. And it’s only been out since late June.

“Focus / No Angel” is fiercely infectious. “Focus,” the A.G. Cook-produced opener, is repetitive in the best way. There are only 65 unique words in the songs three-and-a-half minute running time, but somehow Charli’s delivery (combined with the instrumental) make it equal parts catchy and captivating. I played it in the car for my 58-year-old dad, and his only response was “I don’t think this was made for me.” That’s right, Dad. It wasn’t. It was made for me. It’s great in a DJ set—the DJ played it during my college’s LCD Soundsystem-themed ball this fall, and I absolutely lost my shit. It’s also great just blasting in my headphones while I do homework, because I know it so well at this point that I can listen to it even while I’m reading—though there are no guarantees that I won’t put down my work at any point because the urge to dance is too strong.

“No Angel” has a bit more mythos attached to it than “Focus,” as it is one of the Charli XCX tracks that has alternately been leaked and performed live over the last few years, compelling fans to beg for its release. I, by principle, do not listen to leaks, so I hadn’t actually heard the track before its release, but I was aware of its legendary status, and it fully lives up the hype. It shows off a bit more of Charli’s party-focused songwriting mentality and the hook, “I’m no angel, but I can learn,” references the more self-reflective parts of her 2017 mixtapes. All I can say is, she’s got me and she won’t let me go.

I hadn’t really kept track of Charli XCX until 2018. I’ll admit, I was one of those teens enchanted by “Boom Clap” on the Fault In Our Stars soundtrack, but by last year and the disappointing release of Taylor Swift’s reputation, I’d drifted a bit from my poptimistic roots. Charli was all I needed to get right back into it. I listened to Number 1 Angel for the first time around January, and then Pop 2 a couple of months later. I quickly became enamored with Charli’s future-forward pop, but I found myself disappointed with the first of the 2018 singles. The hip-hop-flavored “5 In The Morning” seemed sort of formulaic, repeating the ‘party all night’ sentiments of previous songs like “Die Tonight” and “After The Afterparty.” “Focus / No Angel,” however, in its incessant repetitiveness and format as a two-track single, is the kind of project that begs to be left on repeat. Just when you might get bored by “Focus”’ chorus, you’re drawn in once again by the hook of “No Angel.” The two tracks balance each other out perfectly and not only prove that Charli XCX is the future of pop, but also work together to form one of the best “albums” of the year.


Delaney Neal is a college student splitting her time between Portland, OR, and the Bay Area. You can usually find her listening to Car Seat Headrest and thinking about her dogs. She’s on Instagram @laneyrse.

The Elephant Visual Album

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When I trace my musical history back to its origins, there are four or five key discoveries from my childhood that have gone on to become foundational cornerstones of my taste. I’ve written about many of them here from my first iPod and 2006 pop music to entire genres that I stumbled into by accident all thanks to people with better taste than me. I measure my life with music, and these events have all become part of my personal mythology; milestones that have gone on to inform not only my taste, but who I am as a person.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with a dad who cared about music. While that mostly relegated itself to me raiding his CD collection to rip classic rock albums onto my iPod, there were also a small handful of (then) modern bands that we bonded over as I began to show an interest in music. The shared section of our musical Venn Diagram has expanded over the years as my taste has continued to mature, grow, and spiral in unexpected ways, but the first “new” band my Dad and I found common ground with was none other than The White Stripes. 

Luckily, because my dad loved The White Stripes, this meant I had the band’s entire discography at my fingertips. He owned their studio albums, B-sides, singles, live albums, demos, side projects, you name it. As a result, I have a worryingly-deep connection to (and knowledge of) Jack White’s musical catalog.

Around this same time, I was also taking guitar lessons. Aside from the standard “starter” songs like “Smoke On The Water” and “Pipeline,” The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” proved to be low-hanging, easy-playing fruit for a 10-year-old Taylor. Between borrowing the CDs and playing the songs, I showed enough of an interest that my dad decided to take me to see the group on tour in 2003 for my second concert ever. 

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While I’ll admit that the 1.5-decade marination time of nostalgia plays a huge part in it, Elephant remains one of my favorite albums of that genre, this era, and my entire life. Hits and overplayed singles aside, there’s a lot to love about Elephant, and there’s a reason it remains the band’s most enduring release this many years later. 

Literally every track on Elephant hits. “Seven Nation Army” is an unparalleled anthem of the early-2000’s. “Hardest Button to Button” bears one of the best drumlines of the decade. “Ball and Biscuit” is one of my favorite songs of all time with its lumbering blues riff that slowly erupts into blistering guitar solos. There isn’t a wasted moment or an unpolished idea. Elephant is rock in its purest form. A feeling that can’t quite be put into words made by two people with two instruments. Perfect.

As eye-opening as Elephant was, sometimes your favorite albums can slide into the background of your life without you ever noticing. New music, other mediums, or life events can keep you from venturing back, and as embarrassing as it is to admit, this had absolutely happened to me with The White Stripes. It’s almost like taking art for granted. I’d listened to Elephant so many times, heard “Seven Nation Army” in so many different movies and TV shows and commercials that at a certain point it just kind of feels like “well, yeah, everyone knows this album is great, so what’s the point?” 

While my relationship with Elephant is ongoing, a chance encounter with a designer completely renewed my love for the record with a project that was crafted as lovingly as the album itself. Sometimes the classics are not only worth revisiting, but worth diving into on a microscopic level, and that’s exactly what Chandler Cort did with this beloved album. 

Creating what he calls a “visual album” Chandler transposed Elephant onto a 9-foot scroll that tracks the entire record second-by-second. Interpreting each instrument’s volume and the exact starting point for every word sung, Chandler’s creation is one-of-a-kind and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in my life. There’s something to be said for standing face-to-face with one of your favorite records and taking in the entire thing as it towers above you.

While it’s impossible to translate the feeling of interacting with the scroll itself, I wanted to share this beautiful and original piece of art with as many people as possible. Not only was Chandler kind enough to let me share his incredible work on Swim Into The Sound, but he also sat down with me to talk about the process that went into making it as well as his personal background with the band. So without further adieu, I’m excited to present The Elephant Visual Album. 

Full-resolution PDF version of the Elephant Visual Album at the end of the article.
 

The Visual Album and Its Creator: An Interview With Chandler Cort

Much like Taylor, I have a very distinct memory of my introduction to the White Stripes. I came to the party very late, as my parents found it borderline impossible to break away from anything outside of the typical 60’s - 80’s hits they grew up with.

There aren’t many specific events in my life that I would refer to as “life-changing,” but hearing “Rag and Bone” for the first time in my high school art class was absolutely one of them. My obsession with the White Stripes began with Icky Thump and worked its way back to the very beginning of the group’s discography until I had completely immersed myself in everything they had ever produced. The White Stripes were something I listened to exclusively for months. When I wasn’t listening to them, I found myself watching interviews with the members, reading about their history, and completely immersing myself in the group’s mythology. I had never quite felt myself become so taken by a band before.

Six years later, the White Stripes are still one of my favorite bands, if not my all-time favorite. Jack and Meg White have taken hold of a very big piece of my heart, and I don’t know if that will ever be able to be eclipsed.

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The way the project really came about was kind of funny. I was in my first infographics class at Portland State University, and we were told to make a timeline for our first project. The professor made sure he kept things very open-ended, so we had the choice to do an incredibly accurate historical timeline, or we could do something more whimsical like a timeline of the Harry Potter Universe.

I remember going on break one day listening to Elephant, and thinking “it would be funny to do an infographic on the number of times Jack White goes, ‘WOO!’ in one album.” So that’s where it really kinda started. I refined my guidelines a little bit further and decided that I would track the main instruments: guitar, drums, and piano, as well as the vocals. 

The process for this piece is something I feel just as proud of as the actual work itself. All of my research for this project was done entirely audibly. I printed all of the lyrics to every song, and I would sit down at my desk every day, listen to the song, and get the second-by-second timestamps for every lyric, and then go back through, and repeat the same process for the guitar, drums, and piano. This means I listened to every song at least three or four times in full, not counting pausing, rewinding, and playing again to make sure the time signatures were as accurate as possible.

In addition to the individual instrument timelines, each song also got a “genre gauge” that I had designed too. Because Elephant is such a diverse album, I feel like it was very important to describe how each song was different in comparison to the others. Every song was ranked on a scale of punk, blues, folk, and pop, with the end result being a circular graph that represented the track’s sonic texture. 

This was then translated into a second graph that I constructed to help best visualize the album in its entirety. I’d guess this project took somewhere between 40-45 hours total. It was truly a monster, which can be seen in the final 9-inch by 9-foot print. I remember people telling me in class that I was doing was ridiculous, and that I was crazy for even attempting something like this, which honestly just kind of pushed me to do it even more.

A lot of my design work has been very music-focused, and I have done very intense pieces about other albums I love, but I feel like this one is probably the most accessible, and the most interesting. I describe this piece as a visual album because I feel like it is the most literal visual translation of an auditory piece. I’m so happy that this piece has received the reaction it has, and I’m incredibly thankful that Taylor was moved enough to offer me this opportunity, and I hope to be here again someday. 

Until then everyone, be good, and love what you listen to.

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James Li Explains 'Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound' Track By Track

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Last month, UK-based musician James Li released his expansive ambient album Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound. The second record released under the Ministry of Interior Spaces moniker, the album is a soul-searching 39-minute meditation on depression, beauty, and life in the face of obliteration. 

While we caught up with him earlier this month for an interview, each track of the album is a multi-faceted work that’s deserving of its own analysis. Luckily James was willing to give us the details of what went into each song’s creation on both a technical and spiritual level. Here is his track by track guide to Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound.

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Track 1. Katie’s Apartment WA

The opening track was meant to be recorded live guerrilla-style at the Tate Modern. The London museum holds these repurposed oil tanks with an incredible fourteen-second reverb. But when I finally got there to record they’d just put in a new installation, so I recorded it at home instead. This was probably for the best.

After making a scratch track, I asked my incredible Seattle musician friend Katie Kuffel to send me vocal parts. I stayed at Katie’s apartment in Seattle when I went cold turkey on my SSRIs. It was a really dark time in my life but I think going out to visit her and other kind friends helped me stay alive. This is what I thought about while writing this track - a starting place of peace amid great turmoil overlooking Puget Sound.

Julianna Barwick was the biggest inspiration for this piece. There was a whole other version of Katie’s Apartment that was three minutes longer and more noise-based with samples of Seattle boats and foghorns. I was committed to it for a long time, but it didn’t work well as an introductory track.

Track 2. Hoyt Arboretum OR

I talked about its story extensively in this premiere - but on that same Seattle trip I took a bus to Portland alone, staying with a fan I’d never met before. It was raining, I was getting bad withdrawal symptoms, and listening to a leak of Carrie & Lowell.

At the crux of it I got lost and found myself in a nature preserve on a hill overlooking Portland. It stopped raining, the sun shone, and everything sort of came together at once. I felt the most incredible pain and joy at the same time, which is also a withdrawal symptom. That experience is what this track is about.

Hoyt Arboretum OR is made mostly from warbly guitar pushed through two delay pedals, and an improvised upright piano recorded from a significant distance (an SM57 six meters away). The OP-1 fills in the rest, while the reversed sample is a Totally Legal recording I took during a Sufjan concert in Cincinnati. It’s from the outro of Blue Bucket of Gold.

Track 3. C64 Falls ID

This particular piece was inspired by Bing & Ruth. I wanted to create a flowy piano-based piece with post-rock guitar as an ethereal undercurrent, representing the sensation of being carried underwater. The growling underneath is my electric guitar being fed into a granulator - I was scratching and scraping the strings while tapping the body. The broody trombone parts are by a Liverpool musician called John Denno - I love how mysterious and bodily they sound. The Montana river sample I used here is actually the last recording I made on my first TASCAM before losing it later that day (more on that next).

C64 Falls kind of looks like Lower Yellowstone Falls, except there are streams of code running down it if you look carefully enough on a sunny day.

Track 4. TASCAM Mountains MT

This was one of the first tracks I made for this album. The bulk of it was recorded in Japan during a work trip. 80% of it was done on the OP-1 and mixed on its inbuilt DAW. Denno plays the trumpet here which I think really completes the track, giving it its lyrical voice.

Musically it’s very inspired by Disasterpiece as I’d been playing Hyper Light Drifter a lot, an indie game that he’d soundtracked. I love how Disasterpeace uses entirely virtual instruments but degrades them until they sound undeniably physical. Destruction is also a recurring theme on this album, and you can hear it clearly in this track - the way the synths crumble and tailspin at the end of every sequence.

The sample was taken in the California desert with an airplane flying overhead. The gross wet sounds at the end are the “Paint Pots” at Yellowstone. I also utilised the same guitar-granulator method I used on “C64 Falls.”

I refer back to this narratively in the very last track, but I lost my first TASCAM and hundreds of hours of audio in some Montanan foothills. I went back looking for it many times, sometimes somewhat recklessly, before finally giving up. It symbolised a lot of unexpected grief I was experiencing at the time.

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Track 5. Cassettelands ID

This is the album’s William Basinksi piece. I took a John Adams composition (with the label’s permission) and slowed it down dramatically, ie. “screwed” it. After that, I ran it through a guitar amp with lots of distortion to create this crumbling tape effect.

Narrative-wise this was inspired by Craters of the Moon National Park in Idaho and the drive back from it. I describe it in better detail in the zine, but basically, I was riding shotgun with a very quiet, very conservative professor called Cheryl who only listened to Christian music. By the end of the night we were driving through Montana dancing and singing along to Queen and New Order in our seats. I wanted it to go on forever. It was perfect.

Track 6. Platonitudes National Park WY

I don’t know how to play piano, so this piece was written in the key of C. Inspired by Max Richter - in particular “On the Nature of Daylight” which is a lucidly gorgeous and melodramatic work. It’s basically a poor man’s Max Richter piece, but I’m fond of it in the same way that I’m fond of my own dubious cooking.

The violinist on this track is a high school friend who’s now the CEO of his own Korean-American pharmaceutical company. Platonitudes National Park doesn’t exist, but in my mind it’s a perfect combination of Yellowstone and Glacier. I recorded this during my worst week of 2017 when both my mental and physical health was failing and I literally couldn’t speak. So I guess this spoke for me at the time.

Track 7. VHS Valley WY

The guitar part is a recording I took in 2014 of my old roommate, Andrew and I messing around on guitar and two delay pedals in my bedroom late at night. It’s honestly one of the coolest things I’ve heard from my guitar, and I’ve tried to recreate it since with no success. I’m grateful I recorded this at the time though, not knowing that I’d use it in an album four years later.

Narratively this is actually about Timber Canyon in Montana. I had a magical walk there with a friend I had a stupid unrequited crush on. It was great. Unfortunately the night turned disastrously bad soon afterwards, and we had to escape death via angry moose.

Track 8. Raton Pass Number Station CO

This song is actually the very first thing I ever made on the OP-1, a month before my first Ministry album Dying Towns of the Midwest. The .wav sat on an old hard drive, and I’m glad I rediscovered it.

After rescuing and mixing the levels on the .wav, I added a few more tracks. The radio chatter is from a Montreal police scanner. The woman counting numbers is my ex (mapped to my OP-1 and triggered by hand). The really heavy distortion is from an electric cello I borrowed. I fed it through an octaver, a reverb pedal, overdrive and a delay pedal which I fooled around with in real-time while playing. Which is a really difficult yoga balancing act to do with a cello.

The piece is inspired by a solitary Amtrak trip I took in the Summer of 2016 after graduating. It was 28-hours each way (actually a bit longer on the way back) from Chicago to Albuquerque. Raton Pass is a mountainous train tunnel by the Colorado-New Mexico border. Going through it feels like a rite of passage.

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Track 9. The Needles UT

This track is fairly straightforward and was very linear to make: Swell guitar via volume pedal, very distorted feedback guitar, OP-1 for a recurring synth line passed through a distorted reverb filter, and then two appregiators. I wanted to keep it simple yet beautiful through growing repetition.

During Sophomore year of college six guys from my floor and I drove 24-hours straight to Canyonlands National Park from Grand Rapids. Those few days in the wild transformed my life for good. I didn’t know how nature could be that powerful or make one wish to live forever. I also didn’t know how gross it was to walk behind your friends’ massive shit swinging in front of you wrapped up in a plastic Meijer bag.

Track 10. Island in the Sky UT

I thought of this track singing in the shower and quickly ran out to write it down. I’d been listening to a lot of Erased Tapes Records artists at the time, so I used Nils Frahm’s Una Corda VST as the key instrument. This was definitely one of the hardest tracks to mix because of the violins.

This track is about the healing, almost other-worldly power of nature - you know, the sublime. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey is in this track’s blood. It also serves as the spiritual sequel, or second half, to The Needles UT.

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Track 11. White Sands Chapel NM

Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 inspired this piece, which is probably the most straightforward track on the album after Cassettelands. I used the OP-1’s FM engine to create the bulk of the song before placing a simple appregiator on top of it. I then reversed the track and added Valhalla Shimmer reverb and guitar pedal distortion which, for some reason, made it sound like a live church organ. About a third of the way in I fade the original unreversed track in but with a very heavy phaser. That’s it.

The field recording is from the Stockholm Public Library, sitting there quietly with my old roommate Anna. I tried to create a fictional cathedral setting in the desert by including hushed whispers. I think the illusion works.

Track 12. House of Eternal Return NM

Since the album starts at a home, I wanted it to end at another. A place of safety, creativity, and rest. The House of Eternal Return is an incredible interactive installation in Santa Fe. The concept is that it’s a house with multiple entrances to other times and dimensions, and I liked the idea of being free of this world’s physical constraints. Basically heaven.

However, when I listen to this track, I honestly think of the New Mexico desert more. I explain it more in the zine and also somewhere in this Imgur album. I was in a car with two strangers when we were so, so close to running out of gas in the middle of the New Mexico desert at night. We stopped the car in the desert and let the vastness of nothing sink into us for a while. And that’s what I think of when I listen to this track. Driving into an unknowable eternal darkness. Stopping the car. The ultimate ending.

Musically I lucked into this one. It’s two improvised synths (the Organelle) panned left and right, then screwed down quite a bit slower/deeper. Fittingly my buddy from Albuquerque, Audrin Niema, plays some percussion in the background which I mixed really low and cut a lot of the high ends on. He basically helps add a subtle human element.

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Track 13. The Perpetual Wound

Out of all these tracks, “The Perpetual Wound” probably went through the most changes. I want all Ministry albums to end with a song with words that summarise the thematic intent of the record, like the songs that play during the credits of a movie. It’s a nice way to gently wake someone up after their Ministry of Interior Spaces floatation tank experience and to restate the album’s mission.

Here are the ideas that I started then scrapped:

  • Recording the traditional folk song, “Hang Me Oh Hang Me,” live at an open mic. I liked the idea of ending with something live and human, like entering the album’s universe in a body for the first time. I made a few attempts, including drastically changing the lyrics to a New Mexico UFO encounter, but there were always too many uncontrollable factors, and none of the recordings turned out to be usable.

  • A repetitive mantra song, like “Driving” by Smog or “The Wounded King” from Dying Towns of the Midwest. As much as I tried, I just couldn’t crack this one.

  • A folk song I made up about a crust punk saving his boyfriend from an Idaho conversion therapy camp (I have no idea where I got this idea from - probably a crust punk).

I finally settled on a strange folk/Americana song to represent an ongoing personal struggle. It was largely influenced by Bill Callahan - I’d been playing Supper heavily around its writing. The idea of a recurring acoustic guitar hammer-on and the instruments interacting with the lyrics came from Our Anniversary. In Callahan’s song a panned electric guitar represents the chirp of crickets, while in The Perpetual Wound the snare drum represents the crack of distant fireworks.

The drums are by this very talented high schooler, Josh Frenier, who I met in line during Pitchfork 2016. He also helped give me the idea of reincorporating the vocal melody from the opening track, thus making Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound perpetually cyclical.

 

Stream Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound here, or pick up a copy on Bandcamp.

Universal Melodrama: Lorde and Medea

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“We told you this was Melodrama.”

Lorde’s Melodrama is a shining pop masterpiece, but as new as the album sounds, the story that it tells is one as old as humanity. Autobiographically-told, it follows Lorde as she grapples with heartbreak and fights to free herself from the intensity of young womanhood. Beloved by both fans and critics, Melodrama is a record that perfectly captures what it’s like to be in love. From the initial feelings of being “wild and fluorescent” to the shift of wondering why you’re dancing alone, the album tracks love as its vibrance slowly fades.

However, to say that Melodrama is merely about romance would be missing the point. The record also addresses what it’s like to be a young woman, transitioning into a world full of expectations and contradictions. In her own words, Melodrama follows the story of a house party, from the euphoric highs of “The Louvre” to the dark intricacies of “Liability,” each song depicts a different stage of the evening as Lorde searches for peace in the aftermath of a breakup. In an album filled with complexities and confusion, the line between heartbreak and freedom becomes blurry, and the party rages on while Lorde tries to keep up.

About 2,000 years prior to Melodrama, Greek playwright Euripides wrote a tragedy called Medea that touched on many of the same topics. The plot focuses on the heartbreak our heroine Medea faces and her plan to get revenge on her adulterous partner. But more than that, it follows a powerful woman who struggles with the expectations placed on her by society. Lorde and Euripides’ works bear a striking number of similarities to each other. Both of our protagonists become obsessed with their lovers, and find themselves willing to betray friends and family. The two narratives posit that love often leads to heartbreak, but it can also lead to freedom.

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Part 1 | The Lover

At the beginning of Medea, our main character falls in love with Jason when he visits her island of Colchis on a quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece and take his spot on the throne. Compelled to help her lover, she feeds Jason tips and helps him attain the fleece through the power of her wizardry. After the current king blocks Jason from taking the throne, Medea hatches a plot to take the kingship illegitimately by tricking the king’s daughters into chopping him up. When her plan is uncovered, both Jason and Medea are banished from the island, chased away by Medea’s own family. In an attempt to escape by sea, Medea devises a plan to slow her father down by killing and chopping up her brother’s body then throwing it to the sea, knowing that her father will stop to collect the individual body parts.

Meanwhile, on Melodrama Lorde finds herself experiencing the same intoxication of love on “The Louvre” where she feels ready to betray friends and family for her lover much like Medea did. At the start of the song’s third verse, she recounts “Blow all my friendships / to sit in hell with you / But we’re the greatest / They’ll hang us in the Louvre.” While she obviously doesn’t go as far as killing, Lorde is still obsessed with her lover in the same way that Medea was, willingly destroying all of her friendships in favor of newfound love. Earlier on in the track, she bottles up that feeling of infatuation with the lines “I am your sweetheart psychopathic crush / Drink up your movements still I can’t get enough.” Both women experience the electrifying fluorescence of new love and succumb to the rush that it fuels.

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Part 2 | The Betrayal

After escaping her homeland, Medea and Jason relocate on Corinth, a remote island where they settle down and have a number of children together. Eventually, Jason finds himself enamored with another woman, Creusa, who also happens to be a princess on the island. Drawn to Creusa’s beauty (and her social status) Jason abandons Medea, leaving her stranded on a strange land, alone with no standing as a foreigner and as a woman. Her time in love with Jason was ultimately quick and intense, and they fall apart just as quickly as they were drawn together.

Lorde also finds herself grappling with a similar situation of new and unfamiliar love on “Homemade Dynamite” where she opens the song with some scene-setting lyrics: “A couple rebel top gun pilots / Flying with nowhere to be / Don’t know you super well / But I think that you might be the same as me / Behave abnormally.” Intoxicated with the feeling of fresh love, Lorde is inspired to act irrationally, jumping into a relationship with little foresight or evidence of compatibility.

Within the same song, we witness the relationship’s quick end as it devolves into a spiteful and violent split. Lorde ends up with someone else despite seemingly still being attached to her original lover. “See me rolling, showing someone else love / Dancing with our shoes off / Know I think you’re awesome right?” Right after asking that, Lorde transitions into a vengeful chorus of “our rules our dreams, we’re blind / blowing shit up with homemade dynamite.” The rapid transformation within the song highlights how quickly the intense feelings of love can retreat and metamorphosize into equally-passionate emotions of hate or violence, just as they did with Medea.

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Both Lorde and Medea find themselves impassioned by their unfaithful lovers in different ways. While Lorde finds herself partying and wanting to “blow shit up,” Medea’s emotions come out in the much more biblical form of a speech. Tied to her husband by law, Medea is left feeling powerless once he abandons her for someone who will lift his status in society. Men, she claims, lead an easy life and can leave their woman whenever they want. Meanwhile, women are the ones who suffer as divorce is reprehensible, women are the ones who have to give birth, and powerful women are feared. Abandoned by Jason, Medea shares her frustration, orating to the women of her city, she claims that even death is preferable to marriage.

“In my case, however, this sudden blow that has struck me has destroyed my life. I am undone, I have resigned all joy in life, and I want to die. For the man in whom all I had was bound up, as I well know—my husband—has proved the basest of men. Of all creatures that have breath and sensation, we women are the most unfortunate. First at an exorbitant price we must buy a husband and master of our bodies. And the outcome of our life’s striving hangs on this, whether we take a bad or a good husband. For divorce is discreditable for women and it is not possible to refuse wedlock. And when a woman comes into the new customs and practices of her husband’s house, she must somehow divine, since she has not learned it at home, how she shall best deal with her husband. If after we have spent great efforts on these tasks our husbands live with us without resenting the marriage-yoke, our life is enviable. Otherwise, death is preferable. A man, whenever he is annoyed with the company of those in the house, goes elsewhere and thus rids his soul of its boredom. But we must fix our gaze on one person only. Men say that we live a life free from danger at home while they fight with the spear. How wrong they are! I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.”

After the outward destruction found on “Homemade Dynamite,” Lorde tries her best to find peace in her own company. She confesses her own experiences of being isolated in “Liability,” the emotional centerpiece of the record in which Lorde finds solace in her own self-love. No longer dependent on someone else for her happiness, she focuses on her relationship with herself. “So I guess I’ll go home into the arms of the girl that I love / The only love I haven’t screwed up / She’s so hard to please, but she’s a forest fire.” In these lines Lorde admits that love has shaken her up, but begins to realize that happiness can (and must) come from within first. She goes on to depict a scene of her evening alone, revealing that she’s indeed talking about herself. “I do my best to meet her demands, play at romance / We slow dance in the living room, but all that a stranger would see / Is one girl swaying alone, stroking her cheek.”

Part 3 | The Revenge

Betrayed by Jason, Medea plots her revenge, eventually deciding to kill Creusa, and the children she’s had with Jason. By taking Jason’s fatherhood and social status, she hopes to harm him in the most painful way possible. Medea eventually decides to kill Creusa by sending her a cursed crown and robe delivered by the children that Jason had with Medea. At first reluctant to accept the kids into her house, Creusa immediately becomes amicable when she notices the beautiful gifts they are offering. Once put on, the crown takes a moment before it latches into Creusa’s skull while the robe burns her skin into a waxy substance. Before she is killed, Creusa is given a chance to admire herself in the mirror, only to watch her beauty that was so treasured be torn away.

In Melodrama Lorde is at her most vengeful on “Writer In The Dark” where she warns her ex of the mistake he made. Instead of remaining heartbroken, she turns her ex’s departure into something empowering. Just as Medea hurts Jason and Creusa in the most personal way possible, Lorde defies her ex by achieving superstar status off an album partially about the empowerment of being alone. “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark / Now she’s gonna play and sing and lock you in her heart.” The chorus portrays Lorde at her most vicious as she bares her fangs through flashes of love-infused threats. “I am my mother’s child, I’ll love you ‘till my breathing stops / I’ll love you 'til you call the cops on me / But in our darkest hours, I stumbled on a secret power / I’ll find a way to be without you, babe.” Eventually, she lands on the self-reliance detailed above in “Liability” and explains that she found her own way out of the darkness of heartache.

Part 4 | The Escape

After having achieved her revenge, Medea leaves the Earth and disappears into the sun on a chariot given to her by her grandfather Helios, the sun god. By giving her the chariot, Helios is also sanctioning her actions and is giving Medea a chance to escape the world that has caused her such pain. This is a moment of triumph, as Medea is now free of her lover and all the actions that came in the aftermath of his betrayal.

Melodrama also includes a reference to disappearing into the sun on “Liability” when Lorde whispers “They’re gonna watch me disappear into the sun / You’re all gonna watch me disappear into the sun” on the track’s outro. In Melodrama’s context, disappearing into the sun is the final act of an incredibly dark and intricate song, yet this disappearance, like the rest of the record, isn’t easy to reckon with. She’s leaving behind her lover in favor of her success, much like Medea left her world behind after achieving revenge. It’s not the choice either would have made in a vacuum, but rather a step that is necessary in order to fully attain the freedom from their past lives.

On Melodrama’s closing track“Perfect Places,” Lorde is confronted with the reality that perfection is impossible, despite the bliss partying seems to bring. To start the song, she details her attempts to get lost in the ecstasy of an average night out. “Every night, I live and die / Feel the party to my bones / Watch the wasters blow the speakers / Spill my guts beneath the outdoor light / It’s just another graceless night.” Checking to make sure her company is as immersed in the party as she is, Lorde asks “Are you lost enough? / Have another drink, get lost in us / This is how we get notorious.” She quickly turns around and explains why she feels the need to party in order to be free, offering that she is ashamed of herself and is afraid of facing the fact that her heroes are disappearing around her. “All of the things we’re taking / 'Cause we are young and we’re ashamed / Send us to perfect places / All of our heroes fading / Now I can’t stand to be alone / Let’s go to perfect places.” After trying to avoid her pain through partying and drinking, Lorde finally comes to realize that life will probably always be an unavoidable mess, and distractions won’t help her deal with her issues despite providing a few hours of escape. She sends the album off with an anthemic chant of “All the nights spent off our faces /  Trying to find these perfect places / What the fuck are perfect places anyway?

Universal Melodrama

So how did these two works of art end up with such eerily-similar arcs? Well, they are both centered around universal themes that are always relevant to the human experience. While love and heartbreak will always be relatable topics, Lorde has admitted that she designed Melodrama to emulate the feeling of a Greek tragedy. In an interview with Vanity Fair she elaborated:

“[Melodrama is] a nod to the types of emotions you experience when you’re 19 or 20. I had such an intense two years, and everything I was feeling—whether it was crying or laughing or dancing or in love—each of them felt like the most concentrated version of that emotion. I also have a love of theater and I love drawing a parallel with Greek tragedies. But there’s definitely an element of tongue-in-cheek; it’s very funny to title your record Melodrama.”

Lorde clearly invokes classical ideals in her record, as she emphasizes the unity of time, place, metaphor, and action. This makes for a more concise album, and as a result, everything is condensed and easy to follow. Similarly, she employs unity of metaphor with repeated references to the sun and fire, ribbons tying her to someone, and the feeling of being used in a relationship. All the imagery is meant to connect, spawning echoes and reflections across the album.

On “Sober II (Melodrama)”, Lorde cautions “We told you this melodrama / Our only wish is melodrama.” Much like the Greeks used to pen cautionary tales of being swept away in a fit of emotion, Lorde’s cry acts as a claim that the listener got exactly what they came for, just as she presumably knew that heartbreak often follows love. Despite the suffering caused by the disintegration of her relationship, Lorde knows every part of her life will be amplified in her transition to womanhood, even the highs.

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The upside to these stories is that both Lorde and Medea turn their cautionary tales of heartbreak into stories of self-success. Thinking less about the specifics of what Medea did and more about the concept, we see two women who successfully seized opportunities to take control of their lives when they could have easily blamed the world for what was happening to them. Without discounting the fact that they both did take a moment to acknowledge the pain of their situation (“Liability” in Melodrama, Medea’s speech in Medea), we can see they were both more interested in accepting the challenge the world had given to them than they were in wallowing in self-pity. That can be a scary concept to tackle, and one that is even harder to realize in actuality. But as Lorde sings in “Liability,” her forest fire-like passion is what enables the wild fluorescence of love, the following crash of being alone, and the ability to embrace a new life. And the unique confusion that comes from that mix of feelings is worth it to have her strength and passion.

Another metaphor that unites both Lorde and Medea is the idea of disappearing into the sun. Lorde does so in “Liability,” a song about feeling used and retreating into yourself. Medea disappears into the sun literally as the final act of the play, leaving behind Jason to join the gods. They both do this as a way of showing heartbreak is not only something that can be overcome, but that the lessons learned from it and the resulting actions might have a more positive and permanent impact than loving someone else did. Lorde and Medea both understand that they can be better off alone and that the empowerment that comes along with their actions allows them to defy the usual feelings of heartbreak.

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In many ways, the human experience will always be the same. We will always search for connection, we will always find heartbreak, and we stumble into relationships that change us forever. The fact that these two vastly different works, in two disparate mediums, from two artists centuries apart can both feel equally valid speaks to this. Viewing these universal truths through different lenses is how we evolve and connect as humans. It gives us an outlet to reflect on our own experiences, and (hopefully) grow as people through them. Whether it’s a murderous sorceress ascending into the sun or a New Zealand teenager dancing in her room by herself, there is truth, experience, and life to be gained through both of these pieces of art.


 

Studying at Boston University, Grant loves writing about all things music. From Jeff Rosenstock to Bleachers, you can see what he his is listening to here. To stay up to date on more music thoughts, follow him on Twitter here.