The New Zealand teenager Ella Yelich-O’Connor has had quite a year. She wrote an uncontrollable phenomenon of a song called “Royals” that bum-rushed her home country’s charts before wandering off in search of new waters — currently, the song is brushing up against monoliths like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Robin Thicke on American charts. She reportedly wrote the lyrics to the song in half an hour and now, to place something solid at the center of her whipping storm of hype, she’s produced a 10-song album.
Despite all this noise, Pure Heroine feels unhurried, just like that breakout hit. The vibe is simple, assured, minimalist. Her voice is an instantly striking and likable instrument, ear-catching and conversational but odd, like someone assuming a difficult-to-place accent. It’s throaty and purring in places but mostly just undemonstrative, fitted sleekly to the demands of her songs. Her delivery is declarative and rhythmic, and her melodies offer a stripped-down version of the cellular hook-writing technique that, over the last half-dozen years, has rewritten pop music’s genetic code.
The songs themselves are funny and legible and shrewd, sketching out a sharp framework and shading it in expertly. If she weren’t a solo performer, she’d make a successful behind-the-scenes hit writer. “Royals” starts out with the economical couplet “I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies/ And I’m not proud of my address” and relaxes into a chorus that is both a mockery of catchy singsong choruses dripping with name brands and an expertly deployed version of same. On “Ribs,” she streaks the song with details so specific that they take two or three listens to absorb: “The drink is spilled all over me/ ‘Lover’s Spit’ left on repeat.” Wait — “Lover’s Spit,” the late-album track on Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People?
One of the repeated lines of that song is one that should be funny coming from a 16-year-old: “It drives you crazy getting old.” But a great pop songwriter, like Ray Davies or Carol King or Taylor Swift, can dial in on pretty much any emotion, even one they only have a kind of dress-rehearsal acquaintance with in their own life, within the clean confines of pop song. O’Connor’s songwriting is more subdued and low-key than the radio chart pop of the moment — “Royals” is mostly a fingersnap of percussion, and “Ribs” is a rainy-windshield blur of synth pads and muted drums — but it’s blessed with this same supernatural acuity. These songs are smarter than any 16-year-old I’ve ever known, and smarter than a lot of 40-year-olds I know now.