By Mark Guarino
At the appointed hour, Lorde strolled onstage nonchalantly, plugged her hands in her pockets, stood before a microphone, and sang, “Glory and Gore.” At the chorus, the song crashed down upon her, and she responded: Arching forward, a mane of hair hanging down, violent jerks of her arms hitting every beat.
The New Zealand singer presented an image of what we all might look like plugged into headphones in our bedroom, but that is her allure: Although age 17, Ella Yelich O’Connor’s appeal is now universal, a singer whose modesty, genuine good nature, and physical connection to the music, could be us.
Except only she is armed with that voice: husky but powerful. At the Aragon Tuesday, Lorde performed about 75 minutes, a set that included her debut album plus some unexpected covers. The singer did not opt for the high-wire props, floating inflatables, a cadre of dance-bots, or streaming video interludes like many pop stars her age. Instead, she designed the show to put her in close connection to a keyboardist and drummer, who utilized both electronic pads and a live drum kit.
They created a physical thrust to the music, making songs on “Pure Heroine” (Lava/Republic) boom. The music on that album is deceptively simple, just spinning, jagged beats, lush harmonies and pulsing synths. Performed live, the combination grew fleshier, like a tiny bedroom pop record blooming into a forest. Lorde, more than once expressing awe at her surroundings — a “tiny castle indoors” she called the Aragon — but she proved she could match its magnitude. The trip-hop electronics, swooshing synthesizers, and recorded backup vocals still left a big space for her voice; imagining this shift to an arena was not impossible, but there’s hope it’ll never be as uncluttered.
The people who came out for her Chicago debut represented the broad appeal of her music: from high-schoolers to adults more than twice their age; even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who was spotted by the crowd taking in the show from a side balcony. The allure of her music might just be that it can’t be easily categorized, and isn’t obsessed with carnal pleasures or whining as are many adolescent hitmakers. Rather, the music expressed a slice of teenage life we don’t often come across on the big stage: toughness expressed with humility, and a kind of glamor that managed to remain demure.
There was also the unexpected: A cover of “Swingin’ Party” by Minneapolis cult favorites the Replacements. Lorde connecting with the bitter wit of Paul Westerberg made sense. Her version broke the song down into bare essentials: A low drone of the keyboards, a single beat from the drummer, and Lorde channeling the lonesome plea of the lyrics into something more urgent, at one point relocating outside her spotlight to sing the lyrics in the dark, while crouching, a hand extended.
But Lorde is also a teenager exiting adolescence, which she reminded the audience during a story that started by recounting typical high school irreverence — throwing a party while her parents are away — but ended, cuddled with a friend in bed, realizing a “terrifying” truth: “All I know how is to be my age, our age, and I don’t know what comes after that.” Many singers establish songs with similar sentiments, but with Lorde, the moment felt unabashed, a secret released. Let’s hope that what comes after now is just as unfiltered.
But then came the gold lamé robe in a quick costume change at the end of her set after “Royals,” her smash hit, which she preceded by covering a slice of “Hold My Liquor” by Kanye West. Floor-length cape, suit — both gold, both providing major swag, and maybe a hint of what may come next time in town, which sources say is likely Lollapalooza in August.
Speaking of the next time in town, minutes earlier, she performed a bit of market research: “If I planned it, would you come back?” she asked. The crowd replied in a way the question was irrelevant.
Glory and Gore
White Teeth Teens
Ribs/Hold My Liquor
A World Alone
Listen to Lorde on Spotify:
Here’s the official “Tennis Court” video: