Review: In a Big Room, Lorde Protects the Small Moments

The moments where Lorde veers from script are the most intriguing at her “Melodrama” arena tour.
Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

Success has a way of polishing out rough edges, of dulling eccentricities. It is hard work, and it requires a commitment to, and belief in, consistency. On an arena tour, it demands a certain sameness — the version delivered each night should be uniform, whether in Helsinki or Omaha.

Lorde does this of course. The show she brought to the Barclays Center on Wednesday night was structurally not much different from those on the rest of her “Melodrama” world tour.

But it’s the ways Lorde veers from script that are the most intriguing — not wholesale disruptions so much as little ripples that draw attention to the planned-out pageantry without diminishing its value. She performs with a heavy sprinkling of wonder that’s ordinarily ground down by the time someone is popular enough to play a room of this size. She calls attention to the light absurdity of success of this scale while also inhabiting it confidently.

Whether Lorde is, in fact, a reliable pop star is a different matter. “Melodrama,” her second album, which came out last June, was excellent, a brooding collection of songs about dying relationships, simmering resentments and insistent recriminations. The writing was mature and aching, and the arrangements poignantly stark or ecstatic.

Image“You have to be the vivid dreamer,” Lorde told the crowd, introducing “Writer in the Dark.”
Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

And yet given her prior success — her 2013 debut album, “Pure Heroine,” went triple platinum, and “Royals” is one of the defining singles of the 2010s — it was received quietly. “Melodrama” has not even been certified gold, and has spawned only one song that cracked the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100.

Which is, perhaps, how it should be: Lorde is a mainstream avant-gardist, more Kate Bush than Katy Perry. She paints largely with shades of gray, blue and purple — she is in no way Technicolor. In truth, the songs on “Melodrama” might have spread further, or been embraced more widely, had a less complicated singer released them. But in pop, there is less correlation than ever before between size of audience and universality of approach. So if this concert felt like a magnified take on a black-box theater performance, that would explain why.

Lorde is a confident and joyful performer. She smiles and sighs as easily as she loses herself in reverie when the song demands it. Her dancing is all sharp angles and jerky movements, earnestly exuberant.

But even though she radiates bliss during the most involved portions of her performance, the most striking moments were the most bare. Midshow, she sat down and prepared the crowd for the caustic “Writer in the Dark”: “You have to be the vivid dreamer,” she told them. She sang with gravity and conviction, and some sneering to boot.

Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

Just after that, she was joined onstage by Jack Antonoff, the producer-songwriter who worked on much of “Melodrama” and who, she said, has made “a lot of beautiful music with a lot of beautiful women.” He sat cross-legged next to her, and she turned to face him while singing a cover of one such song, St. Vincent’s “New York.” Then, she asked him to stay onstage for the next song, and he headed back to a keyboard to play on “Liability,” another elegantly scathed song from “Melodrama” Lorde sang with sweet melancholy.

For a venue of this size, the show itself was small scaled and modestly budgeted — barely any stage filigree, relatively simple lighting, no platforms hovering out over the crowd. The only real frill was a clear rectangular box that rose up and down, which served at points as dance space, changing room and bench.

Throughout the night, Lorde was joined by dancers in various configurations, though rarely did it feel grand. The movement was loose and fluid, and especially when there was just one, like on “Tennis Court” and “Supercut,” the effect was more that of a casual frolic with a friend than an orchestrated routine.

These small moments were what mattered: the time one of her shoes slipped off, and so she kicked off the other, removed her socks, and threw them all into the crowd; or the stretch at the end of her encore when she ran down into the pit and began hugging individual fans. Shows this big often rely on grandeur and inaccessibility as a kind of cudgel, but for Lorde, dismantling those things to reveal the person within is the real weapon.