If fans thought that "Green Light," the house-tinged first single in three years from Ella Yelich-O'Connor, was a surprise -- and it was -- they're probably still trying to unscramble their brains hours after "Liability," the second advance track from Lorde's upcoming Melodrama album, was released this Thursday (Mar. 9).
Not that the song is particularly experimental or innovative, necessarily -- an exceedingly emotional and bare-bones piano ballad, the song wouldn't sound tremendously out of place in the catalog of Adele, Sia or any number of other pop powerhouses. But coming from Lorde, with this particular lyric and delivery, the thing is an absolute jaw-dropper. Here are seven reasons why.
1. The six seconds of silence. As if there hasn't been enough suspense in the four years since Pure Heroine, with fans and critics wondering what kind of reintroduction she'd make after her extended absence, "Liability" begins with six seconds of near-complete silence, as a barely audible male voice (Jack Antonoff? Joel Little?) counts off the song's four-beat intro. It makes for almost unbearable tension -- and no small amount of confusion, since unless you have the volume cranked, you might think the thing's just not playing -- and allows the song's proper intro to hit with that much more force as a result.
2. The opening piano. The big piano ballad, as far as we knew, was not in Lorde's arsenal. The most dramatic, introspective lyrics on Pure Heroine were still mostly conveyed in lively mid-tempo, blanketed with synths that sighed and sparkled -- there was nothing that could possibly be interpreted as a torch song. But from the first measures of "Liability," with the song's grand, "Whiter Shade of Pale"-like melody being thudded out on the keys, it's clear that this is going to be a left turn for Lorde, and the turn only gets wider from there.
3. The lyrical fake-out. Halfway through the first verse, Lorde drops something of a bombshell of a lyric, lamenting, "So I guess I'll go home, into the arms of the girl that I love/ The only love I haven't screwed up/ She's so hard to please, but she's a forest fire." Is she discussing an affair with another woman? Role-playing from an ex's perspective? The answer comes by verse's end: "We slow dance in the living room, but all that a stranger would see/ Is one girl, swaying alone, stroking the cheek." In other words, it's her own arms she's going home to -- so don't get ahead of yourself -- but regardless of the resolution, she's got your attention at this point in the song, for sure.
4. The chorus. "They say, 'You're a little much for me / You're a liability.'" The piano goes soft for the song's refrain -- as if this is hard enough on her already -- and the singer just barely ekes out the impossibly cruel chorus, which she then doubles down on by internalizing and echoing back: "I understand -- I'm a liability / Get too wild, make you leave / I'm a little much for everyone." Like the about-face chorus to Adele's "Someone Like You," it feels more devastating for how it pulls back on the intensity, too bruised and weakened to show the strength of grand drama.
5. The singular first-person. Remember when everything with Lorde was "We"? "We'll never be royals," "We live in cities you'll never see on screen," "We're dancing in this world alone"? Pure Heroine was all about strength in numbers, but now it's just Ella, grown and on her own, with only piano and guitar for solidarity. "I am a toy that people enjoy, till all of the tricks don't work anymore/ And then they are bored of me." She's never gotten this personal before, and just hearing her tell her story so plain-faced, without a plural pronoun to hide behind, makes each line its own wrecking ball.
6. The production. Obviously, Lorde's never done a song this stripped-down before: Gone are the booming drums, crackling bass and waves of glistening synths that colored her early work. But the production is just as key to the success of "Liability" as it was to any of her previous singles -- it just stuns with rawness instead of sumptuousness, with every scrape of fingers against guitar strings, every plunk of ivory hitting wood and every hairline fracture in Lorde's voice vividly audible. And when the song does add layers, embellishing the second verse with what sounds like bells and a Mellotron, it's only to brilliantly strip them away at the song's dramatic climax -- "Every perfect summer's eating me alive/ Until you're gone!" -- at which point nearly everything is shed but the singer's tattered wail, echoing into nothingness.
7. The outro. "They're gonna watch me disappear into the sun." A closing note of inspired ambiguity, avoiding total despair -- hey, at least she's moving into the light -- but making it painfully clear Lorde's not coming back around anytime soon. Good thing we now know for a fact there's a new album coming in three months.