Lorde puts the art into pop

by MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

Sometimes when an artist choses music to play between breaks in a concert, the selections reflect their own personal preferences.

So, it was telling that singer songwriter Lorde chose singer Kate Bush’s “Running Up the Hill” from the 1980s in the lead-up prior to her taking the stage at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Saturday, April 7.

Bush’s musical aesthetic clearly provides a template for Lorde’s own.

You see Kate Bush was a pop sensation in her native Britain from the get-go. She sold tons of records. But she did it with a sound that was atypical from the dance-oriented pop of the time. She released records with a quirky electronic experimental sound with moments of dissonance and complexity—often recorded solo in the studio without the help of other musicians. Bush also wrote songs that went beyond the boys-meet-girl or let’s-protest-the-inequities-of-society. She told stories about people, people with problems, trying to escape to a better place.

And there’s the key, she was a songwriter who told stories.

That’s where Lorde comes in.

Her music has an artful quality to it. Her use of electronics is atypical of the ProTools army on the charts. She’s not afraid to take a left when other artists take a right.

And she’s a songwriter who tells stories.

This is where she veers a bit from Bush.

Bush offered stories that shifted into epic.

Lorde pays attention to the small moments.

And despite this atypical pop approach, she sells lots of records to fans who gladly helped sell out the Mohegan Sun, hung on her every word, and persistently shouted out declarations of love.

On record, Lorde’s music has an intimate quality. It is a whisper to the listener, asking us to come closer so we can hear what she has to say.

So, heading into the big arena, I was curious as to how Lorde’s intimacy would be transformed into spectacle for thousands and thousands of fans.

And like her music, Lorde did it her way, and in spectacular fashion.

First of all, it was amazing how Lorde was able to take her intimate moments on record and make them expansive musically. She smartly combined electronics for a fuller sound on stage. She clearly had studied other artists who have a stark sound on record—like Depeche Mode or Elton John in the early days—and were able to use technology and amplification to give the music expanse.

Sometimes an artist and its message can get lost in playing for the crowd. But Lorde’s music still carried emotion. The longing, sadness, joy, anger, and disappointment still vibrated over the crowd.

Also, Lorde kept true to her vision with a show that was entertaining but still was artful. The lighting was more about mood rather than illumination—like a dance performance. And her use of dancers was atypical. Rather than back-up dancers mining contemporary hip-hop styles to stir up the energy, Lorde’s show used modern and lyrical dance to help accentuate the stories. The choreography added to the mood and emotion.

The stage also was stark and full of shadows but intrigued with a huge glass enclosed box that sometimes sat on stage and sometimes hovered over it. The box often was filled with artful dancers as if we were voyeurs peeking into someone else’s drama on the other side of a restaurant window.

Despite the artful quality of the show, Lorde did not forget she was a pop artist. Her banter and intros to her songs were insightful at times and charming at others. There was no navel gazing. Lorde was engaged in the experience and, in turn, the audience was as well.

At the Mohegan Sun, Lorde showed as an artist, she is in it for the long haul. Her music may have provided hits. But she’s looking to take her audience on an emotional journey. And the audience, as indicated by its vigorous applause for each song, is ready to follow.

Prior to Lorde’s performance, rap duo Run the Jewels provided an energetic, raucous, and crowd-pleasing set. In many ways, their style of rap was a throwback to the earlier days of the genre, eliciting thoughts of Run DMC and 2 Live Crew. And the audience quickly warmed to their music.

As the audience still filed in, singer-songwriter Mitski took the stage. Like Lorde, her recordings tend to veer toward the intimate. But onstage, her music rocked harder and played up the dissonance. Her music reminded me of the Velvet Underground in their Nico days and late ‘80s alt-rockers, Cowboy Junkies.

I give Lorde at the Mohegan Sun Arena on April 7 four out of four stars.

PHOTOS by MIKE CHAIKEN

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