Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Fox Theater, Oakland
Better than: A lot of other recent radio-dominating hits.
Ella Yelich-O'Connor is a small figure in a bright red pantsuit and black stilt boots, crouching onstage in Oakland before a sold-out crowd. The music pauses, and in a moment of lightweight quiet she shakes her fist in the air quickly, agitatedly, anticipating the return of the bass, still crouching. You've seen other people shake their arms like this to louder, faster, busier music, but Lorde does it in near-silence, and when the throb finally returns, sending shivers through the theater, she stands up and sings in that smoothened growl she uses so often, having shown you, with those furious shakes of her arm, her intensity, her frustration, and the way the bass stands in for it. Lorde is 17 years old and crazy famous, but Lorde is still as angsty as fuck: as angsty as a girl who wore black lipstick and a Cramps T-shirt to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Lorde is also a very good performer. Save for the part of the show in which she drivels on entirely too long introducing "Ribs" (though it's a cute story about throwing a house party for the first time, and whether you can "keep doing kid stuff for as long as you want"), she delivers the highlights of her short discography in one brisk, clean-sounding hour. Her voice sounds every bit as rich and coyly proficient live as it does on her recordings. In fact, when she gets to the chorus of "Royals," she sings the word in a slightly different way, holding it longer, and it's refreshing to hear even the slightest variation on a pop tune that's become air furniture over the last six months.
Lorde is accompanied only by a drummer and a keyboardist, who of course generate more sounds than your typical bass and keyboards, including the chorus background vocals on "Royals" and all of the bass notes that routinely shake the Fox Theater. Above them onstage are three LCD panels showing either Lorde herself of the kind of atmospheric nature footage you might see backing, say, a Gold Panda performance. During "400 Lux," it's a repeating clip of the sun rising over a hillside behind snowy, generic suburban homes in a forest. This is pretty much ideal accompaniment to the song, which captures so well the romance and pointlessness of driving around in cars as a teenager. "I love these roads where the houses don't change," she sings, "where we can talk like there's something to say."
The fact that Lorde's visuals sort of recall those of other, lesser known but highly regarded electronic artists is important, because it points to a paradox at the heart of her presence: Lorde has become popular for being herself, for singing songs about a humble life and rejecting the glamour of fame and fashion. But the underpinnings of her music -- those spare, airy, bass-heavy beats -- are total high-fashion in music right now. They're right on trend, the backing tracks of cool kids from Sampha to Drake. And after an hour, even mixed in with the somewhat more lively songs from her debut EP, their slow tempos and predictable structure do get tiresome. So we have to wonder: Will she evolve with or in contrast to musical fashion? What kinds of sounds will she be shaking her fist to in five years? Can she write as compellingly about adulthood as she can about being on the cusp of it?
But none of that matters now, on this first of two sold-out nights at the Fox, as Lorde disappears during "Team" and comes back in a glittering gown, looking not old, exactly, but even more the unlikely queen bee than usual. The song goes down like a victory lap, climaxing with confetti canons. The mood is joyous. Lorde, for all her angst and humility, is winning. She's too good not to.
Shout-out: To whoever you were in the creepy reindeer/bear/wolf furry costume with the glowing green eyes, dancing and taking selfies with whoever walked by.
The downside: of Lorde's spacious beats is that they leave a lot of negative space for people to talk over. Some friends of ours last night found a solution to the loud-talker problem: shine your annoyingly bright cellphone light on them until they shut up.