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Lorde Alive!

New Zealand’s teen genius gets grown in a desert-town dive

One hundred and fifty miles east of central L.A., a tiny saloon named Pappy & Harriet's glows in the middle of the desert beneath a vast, glinting night sky. Two days before Lorde was due to debut her Melodrama era on Coachella's main stage, she snuck in a secret show for 244 fans at this homey spot in Pioneertown, California. "I didn't realize that my dancing was questionable until I became a pop star," the New Zealander bantered between songs. "People describe it as like someone dancing alone in their bedroom." The compact, carpeted stage and low ceiling offered a rare chance to actually see her at that scale, to see the lyrics crackle through her body, clad in a sheer gold dress, and animate her blue-shadowed eyes.

Just after Friday night had turned to Saturday morning, the bar's soundtrack faded out and was replaced by "Running Up That Hill" by Kate Bush, queen of freaky dancers and wild perfectionists. Through a door to the left of the stage that opened out onto Pappy & Harriet’s courtyard, a giddy Lorde (a.k.a. Ella Yelich-O'Connor) peeped into the wood-paneled room, exposing a glittery sleeve, and embraced her three band members. She followed them onstage, and sang the stately opening verse of comeback single "Green Light." But it was a feint — a pause lingered, she grinned, and the synths of "Tennis Court" glowered in. Pacing the stage, she twisted like a wraith, and leered into the line, "Talk it out like yeeeaaaah."

Until now, Lorde hadn't performed since December 2014. In the interim, she explained during an impromptu audience Q&A, she'd bought a house in New Zealand, where she's been cooking, baking, and going to the beach. That's less than half of the story, though she let the show spell out the rest. The gulf between ages 18 and 20, which she is now, is vast. Where she used to move as if experiencing the jolt of sensations for the first time, she now eased into her movements with sensual glee: swinging around a pole onstage to loom over the crowd; tracing the final, ghostly contours of a song with her fingers. She addressed the crowd with seductive intimacy, highlighting the anything-goes atmosphere that inspired a confession about getting a preshow pedicure to tame her gnarly toenails. The glimmering "Ribs," a song about age anxieties manifesting in the middle of an illicit teen party, felt almost small on her.

Lorde recently told the New York Times that her second record would loosely follow the arc of a single night. “Ribs,” she explained at Pappy & Harriet’s, is the bridge between her 2013 debut Pure Heroine and the forthcoming Melodrama. "It's about a party, an old party," she said. "The new record is very much about a party as well so this feels new in a way.” Halfway through the show, she debuted what could be Melodrama’s centerpiece — “something from the new record that’s kind of one of my favorite things I think I’ve done,” she teased conspiratorially. “It’s a two-part song — they’re a big part of this album in a different way. And I really need you with me for this — are you with me?”

Within a few bars of the first song, a fan who had clearly studied the details of the Times profile yelled out its title: “Sober!” (“You got it?!” Lorde laughed back between lines, in happy disbelief.) Confronting the different realities contained within a single moment is one of her lyrical trademarks: On Pure Heroine, she surveyed teenage situations with a sharp-eyed awareness that they could never last. Between records, Lorde broke up with her long-term boyfriend, and went out. “Sober” juxtaposes the thrill of hooking up (“my hips against your hips … will you sway with me, go astray with me?”) with a fierce awareness of the potential aftermath. “Ain’t a pill that could touch our rush / But what will we do when we’re sober?” she chanted in a breathy falsetto. With its knocking beat, sharp brass flares, and fevered tropical pitch, it fell somewhere between a Jamie xx production and Taylor Swift and Zayn’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” while Lorde’s gasping, looped refrain of “when you get to my high” recalled Wild Beasts’s “Ponytail” and Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem.”

Its second half, billed as “Sober (Interlude)” on the set list, flipped the script. Piano glinted mournfully, and Lorde’s voice cracked as she confronted the uncertainties of this new situation. “Lights are on and they’ve gotten home / But who am I?” she asked, the tremor in her voice recalling Bowie lurching through Blackstar. Strings swooped in, and a brittle beat sputtered beneath a performance rich with classical tragedy. While streaming through her personal anxieties, she also seemed to rail at youthful emotional turmoil being turned into public spectacle: “And the terror, and the horror / Gotta wonder why we bother / All the glamor, and the trauma / And the fucking melodrama,” she seethed. The pace slowed as she unleashed a coolheaded admonishment. “We told you this was me-lo-dra-ma,” she taunted at the end. “You wanted something that we offered.”

She continued to map the impact of outsize emotions on “Liability,” which she prefaced with a monologue while her keyboard player teased out the refrain. “I call it my little ghost song,” she explained, recounting a day in New Zealand when she walked until she could no longer walk, then cried in the back of a cab while listening to “Higher” by Rihanna. “Sometimes it’s just haaard, you know?!” she said, leaning into her accent. “Especially when you’re 20 and everything feels like the biggest fuckin’ deal in the world.” Although most of her songs call for big production, this one felt right at home in Pappy & Harriet’s. Perched on a stool in the corner of the stage, she looked straight into people’s eyes, embodying the song’s central challenge: How do you sustain intimacy with someone that belongs to everyone?

The set was just 12 songs long (one named “Homemade Dynamite” was tantalizingly scratched off the set list) and closed with a full, riotous rendition of “Green Light.” Even though Lorde would perform the same material at Coachella just two days later, the show at Pappy & Harriet’s felt significant. It’s hard to think of another mainstream pop artist making music that speaks so specifically to their personal experience while feeling utterly inclusive. Lorde is an expansive pop visionary whose music is designed to exist on giant stages, but the miniature setting of her comeback show distilled her aptitude for turning tiny, potent moments into cosmic melodies, then flipped it on its head.