Illustration by Ben Beechener
Listening to Solar Power feels like watching a professional world champion golfer play a leisurely game for fun: their mastery of the sport is evident, yet for the spectator there is little emotional investment in the performance. The album, Lorde’s third and highly anticipated after a four-year break, is rich with beautiful imagery, lush instrumentation, and some excellent tracks. However, it is also a slightly difficult record to engage with on a personal level.
Solar Power’s predecessors, Melodrama and Pure Heroine, are meticulous, stitched together into a delicate but rigorous order to create a cohesive narrative within each album. Solar Power is purposefully more unravelled — Lorde aspires for it to resemble a well-loved woven sun hat, but rather than coming off as carelessly stylish the record feels a little messy.
There are three main concepts developed over the course of the 12 tracks: our relationship with the natural world; using the peace of solitude to explore the self; and health/wellness culture. None are quite unpacked with the thoroughness I would have liked. It’s a shame that ‘Leader of the New Regime’, a short interlude imagining a vapid celebrity fleeing from civilization as it falls into ruins, is only 2 minutes long. It is a more intriguing idea than what most of the album’s runtime is devoted to, namely the self-exploration theme.
As Billie Eilish’s most recent record also illustrated, it is rather more difficult for the average listener to bond with songs devoted to the worries and concerns of the hyper-famous on the same level as their composers. Lorde’s music has always been deeply linked to her personal experience and littered with details from her life with which most have no connection, yet always addressed universal themes (breakups, parties, youth) in a way that spoke to everyone.
Lorde appeals to the masses here too, such as in ‘Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)’ or ‘Stoned at the Nail Salon’, but this time with vague platitudes and attempts at advice. Although it was probably not her intention to be so, she sounds almost smug: the cynical listener might grumble that it is easy for her to shut off her phone for 3 years and contemplate life from the security of her idyllic New Zealand home, then condescend to relate what she’s learnt over the mumbling tones of Jack Antonoff’s guitar. Not that Lorde’s personal journey in creating Solar Power was easy — the death of her dog and the pandemic scarred the recording process — but her dreamy descriptions of a languid lifestyle could grate on the wrong ears.
Accusations of pretentiousness and elitism recently came Lorde’s way following her decision to play to small venues next year, eschewing a stadium tour in favour of greater intimacy with her audience. Fans’ frustrations concerning the shortage of tickets are perfectly valid, yet complaints about Lorde’s choice of venues also exposed a nasty streak that runs through many artists’ fanbases, whereby ‘Stanning’ and social media culture have generated a sense of entitlement in some listeners who feel that they are owed something from the artist they patronise. Regardless, Lorde’s decision to perform her music as she wishes it to be performed. in an environment in which she feels most comfortable, must be respected.
However, the nature of Solar Power only bolsters the arguments of those who critique her for becoming ‘too pretentious’; the drowsy pacing of many tracks and their meandering instrumentals are sometimes unfocused to the point of becoming self-indulgent. Lorde’s music has never bowed to the expectations of others, and the integrity of her vision is what has made her an engaging artist. Yet Solar Power might be the first of her works for which that vision isn’t quite as appealing to listen to as the others.
With the critical acclaim that Lorde boasts, combined with a cult following that has been steadily building in the four-year hiatus since Melodrama, it isn’t unreasonable to expect mixed reactions amongst listeners who are used to the electropop and angsty snares of her previous records. As someone who once despised the acoustic guitar, Solar Power is Lorde’s ode to the acoustic guitar. Its shift sonically is reflected in its thematic 180.
Despite this new artistic direction, this is still undeniably a Lorde album. It is a showcase of her strengths: thoughtful and intricate lyricism, clean production, and a strong sense of personality. It would be misguided not to expect some growth as an artist. Lorde is not the same teenager who wrote ‘Royals’ — and she makes it clear throughout this record.
Of course, this album is not perfect. Attempts at socio-political commentary, notably on climate change, are littered through this album in tracks like ‘Fallen Fruit’ and ‘Leader of a New Regime’. Unlike other artists however, this is not wholly performative statements on climate anxiety. Her decision not to produce a CD version of this album is because she “didn’t wanna make something that would end up in a landfill in 2 years”. The title Solar Power was chosen after her trip to Antarctica where she called for immediate action on climate change from world leaders.
Where her commentary falls flat for me is her take on wellness culture. Her third single ‘Mood Ring’ is a satirical song exploring just that, with warm acoustic riffs that are reminiscent of an early-noughties pop song. Lorde plays a character, even donning a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque blonde wig in the music video, as a privileged young (see: white) woman who is trying to stay in touch spiritually and emotionally. It contains clever metaphors and references, and is certainly one of the more upbeat on the entire record. But any attempt at distilling wellness culture, the exploitation of indigenous cultures, and whiteness into a 3 minute pop song is bound to sound contrived in some places. The lyric “you can burn sage and I’ll cleanse the crystals” only really sounds ‘satirical’ if you a) are an eager fan subscribed to Lorde’s mailing list or b) have watched her Genius interview.
But the album is effective and strong in other places. Solar Power is not a concept album. It lacks the obvious universality of her other records which discussed teen angst and heartbreak. Yet, the construction of this album, the selection of songs and instruments, and how personal this album feels to Lorde is a clear demonstration of growth that we can all relate to. How different were you four years ago? The release of every Lorde album is like a marker of where I am in life. I may not be a Grammy winner who has escaped the limelight to lounge on a beach in New Zealand but I definitely understand what it is to mature and change.
In the final track ‘Oceanic Feeling’, Lorde makes reference to her teenage self: “now the cherry-black lipstick’s gathering dust in a drawer/I don’t need her anymore/’Cause I got this power”. Solar Power is a soft, but firm, declaration of change and growth. It will be interesting to see how this album also matures alongside the rest of her discography.