With all due respect to the other members of Gossip, Beth Ditto’s voice, personality, and style always had a way of commanding most of the attention. And now that her band of 17 years has officially split up, Ditto is free to set out on her own and explore some other avenues. On Fake Sugar, (★★★½) the familiar dance punk is gone, replaced by a sort of indie-rockabilly. Her old band’s political overtones, if they are there at all, are much less obvious. The whole thing may be distinctly more radio-friendly, but Ditto, a self-described fat, feminist lesbian, is as confident and defiant as ever.
At its best, Fake Sugar is a powerful solo debut. In its most well-realized moments, Ditto embraces her Southern roots, returning with a more sympathetic eye to the region she once fled. Many of the songs have an anxious, atmospheric feel to them that seems to draw on Southern Gothic. It’s a little bit rural Arkansas and a little bit New Orleans at midnight. Her full, powerful voice, always distinct in Gossip, suits the aesthetic well, whether she is belting out lyrics to “Oo La La,” gliding over the hazy, haunting guitar of “Savoir Faire,” or growling on the folklore-inspired single “Fire.”
Fake Sugar is at least partly about Ditto trying to define a post-Gossip identity for herself. She’s trying a lot of things on the album, though at times might be trying to do too much. Especially on the second half of the album, Ditto begins to give the feeling that she began with too many ideas and wasn’t sure where she wanted to take them. Tracks like “We Could Run” veer a little too much into indie pop anthem territory, which might have been fine on another album, but late into Fake Sugar, they seem out of place. They do the job of once again highlighting Ditto’s stellar voice, but unfortunately, they do so by dragging out their choruses to the point of awkwardness.
When Ditto plays to her strengths, Fake Sugar is excellent. She seems to be working out what kind of artist she wants to be — the unevenness on the album is forgivable. After all, she has proven herself again and again during her time with Gossip. If Fake Sugar is any indication, her solo career will be just as much fun to witness.
Amid the soaring arrangements and pop shimmer of Melodrama (★★★★), you might be tempted to ask, what exactly happened to Lorde? Where are the sparse vocals and minimal drum beats of Pure Heroine? Where has our goth princess gone? The answer seems to be that like so many former teenage goth princesses, Lorde has grown up, become a bit more self aware, and picked up a healthy sense of self-deprecation along the way.
Breakup albums has been done countless times in countless ways, but oddly enough, Lorde has added some genuine complexity to the format. Just like any breakup, Melodrama is frequently messy and self-indulgent, but the title itself is a sign of the wry self-awareness that runs through the album. The breakup is clearly a melodramatic mess, but Lorde knows it, and more importantly, knows we know it too.
We find Lorde wrestling with the question of whether or not to care, whether to mourn the relationship or shrug it off and charge forward into adult life. At first, she opts to do the former. “She thinks you like the beach/you’re such a liar,” she spits on the venomous opener, “Green Light.” Boisterous, energetic tracks like this one, along with “Homemade Dynamite” and “Supercut,” are Lorde at her most distant from her earlier work. With a hand from producer Jack Antonoff, she has found a sound that is warmer, brighter, more celebratory. Melodrama is the most fun when Lorde is indulging the more cathartic side of things, but thanks in part to Antonoff’s arrangements, the excitement is balanced by feelings of loneliness and confusion that mark the more nakedly introspective tracks like “The Louvre,” and the mournful piano ballad “Liability.”
To see just how much the artist has evolved since her debut, compare Melodrama to her first big single. “Royals,” at least on its surface, was all about a disengagement from the world of pop. It sought an escape from spectacle and artifice into a private world shared between a couple. On Melodrama, Lorde turns the idea on its head, signalling an escape into the spotlight from the ashes of that private world. With her relationship over, she is free to embrace an artform that gives her permission to address, explore and wallow in the mess of emotions left in the aftermath.
After attaining fame at 16, it would have been understandable if Lorde had felt she had something to prove, now that she’s reached her twenties. She could have made a very serious record to prove to everyone that she’s now a very mature adult and a very serious artist. Fortunately for us, she’s opted to have some fun with her introspection, allowing Melodrama to speak for itself, and letting other people worry about how much she has grown up.
Melodrama and Fake Sugar are available for purchase from Amazon.com and iTunes, as well as various on streaming services.
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