Image by Prudence Upton
Sydney Opera House Forecourt, November 21
The way these things go is reasonably standard and easily recognised.
Young artist takes tentative steps in delivery and showmanship; returns with more confidence and higher production values. Said artist arrives with a youthful tone that gradually thickens/darkens with “adult reality”.
Shows begin somewhere like Goodgod Small Club, at some point step up big time to the Hordern and then, at peak position, commandeer the Opera House (inside or out).
Ella Yelich-O’Connor, or Lorde, has only followed the script in the last of those. She confessed during the first of two sold-out performances in the same space where Paul Kelly (three times her age) had performed on the preceding two nights, that at that Goodgod show four or so years ago she’d been amazed to have people there at all.
On the other fronts though, Lorde has inverted the sequence. When she played at the Hordern in 2014 she created almost an art show of minimalist staging and sound, her central role being part vogeing frontwoman, part enigmatic ageless figure who spoke little but felt a lot.
Her voice, though not consistent across her range, was working on distancing and suggestions of maturity beyond her teen years, and her songs leant more on electronica and strands of hip hop than pop.
Three years and one further album on, her ascendency confirmed worldwide, Lorde’s show was lighter, brighter, punctuated by her enthusiastic responses and between song chat, and was made for reaching out, not waiting for us to come in.
It was much more a pop show (dancers, lighting, sparkly outfits), was intended – she told us early on – as a “dance” show, and in parts strongly emphasised the rhythm/hip hop base over the moody electronic.
The pity of it is it didn’t work half as well as intended.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these moves per se, but on a practical level, if you’re going to do a pop show you have to bring pop show values to the table. And that means more than her continued use of taped backing vocals and two outfit changes, or her undoubted charisma and talent.
Two dancers doing floaty moves in the background, underpowered lighting and staging, and a set list which retreated from the opening high tempo mark of Homemade Dynamite to a sustained run of low impact rhythms, aren’t going to cut it in an open space and lingering twilight.
The two-piece band (the same configuration we saw last time) seemed set to put more muscle on the minimalism, particularly in Tennis Court and The Louvre - a song set in the key of U2 with its smouldering drama - but it never really, well, muscled up.
Image by Daniel Boud
And while Supercut, Royals and Perfect Places had some bounce, they were pulling against a strong tide of restraint, both on and off stage, that had preceded them. Not helped in any way by a cover of Throw Your Arms Around Me in an arrangement which was outside her vocal range and stripped of its emotional core.
As that cover showed, there’s still a way for Lorde’s voice to go, in strength and depth, her newer songs asking more of her than what we saw in 2014. There’s also a way to go in stagecraft, in connecting us to her.
She seems oddly enough newer, rawer, less sophisticated than three years ago. Was she so much older then, and younger than that now? Or could at least part of this be blamed on factors outside her control.
As Kelly just discovered, as everyone from The National and Bjork to Tame Impala and Florence and the Machine could have told us, and as Midnight Oil showed earlier in the month in the Domain (to prove it is not a single venue thing), if you’re going to play outdoors in Sydney you are making several major compromises.
You trade audience comfort for stunning view or nature-enhanced atmosphere. You cede control of the sound to the vagaries of wind, bounceback from buildings and distance from speakers. And with a city of wowsers and entitled whingers, you give up any prospect of volume playing a role in your show.
The latter is usually the most crucial, and once again it undermined the impact of this show. Lorde’s struggle to hold and dominate (as in take control from other distractions) the space with the low-key early songs and production was exaggerated by the modest sound.
The lack of connection was obvious across the forecourt, an area filled with people who had come to love right back at her. They wanted to be part of the show, they just couldn’t find a way in for quite some time, and only really lifted completely with the final song of the set, Green Light.
Propelled by her dancing, enhanced by its mix of glee and anger, and riding on assertive drums, Green Light was not just the most invigorating song since Homemade Dynamite but also, it felt, the loudest. That’s no coincidence.
Lorde plays the Opera House Forecourt November 22