It’s an hour after midnight on June 11, 2021, the vaccine side-effects are just starting to kick in, and Lorde has emerged from her four-year hiatus with a new single called ‘Solar Power’. Considering my predicament, it’s no wonder I was among the many people who found it hard to connect with its relaxed, beachy vibe on first listen, but it was obvious the song was a grower, and its cultish video suggested her long-awaited third album might have an interesting conceptual bent. But beneath the discourse lay the simple truth that the singer known for evoking the unbearable angst of growing up now seemed perfectly happy, a fact that fuelled a small but vocal minority with a certain kind of envy by the time of the album’s release. When you’re busy scrolling through social media to keep up with all the takes, how could you not feel a pang of resentment at the person who’s managed to cut out all that noise to connect with the beauty of our fragile natural world?
But Lorde isn’t here to offer spiritual transcendence. In fact, she actively rejects that role. Belying Solar Power’s pleasant, sunny disposition is her usual introspection and self-awareness; she kicks off the album by introducing herself as a “teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash” who refuses to bear the weight of responsibility imposed on her. “Now, if you’re looking for a savior/ Well, that’s not me/ You need someone to take your pain for you?/ Well, that’s not me,” she sings, before embracing a vague but communal sense of direction: “Let’s hope the sun will show us the path.” Lorde’s writing on the record is vivid and compelling, particularly when she charts her own journey to success, as in ‘California’, which opens with Carole King presenting her with the Song of the Year award at the 2014 Grammys and ends with her returning to her native New Zealand to get away from the spotlight.
Solar Power finds Lorde reuniting with her Melodrama collaborator Jack Antonoff, who also co-produced Clairo’s recently released sophomore LP. But the proximity of the two albums – as well as Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever – is most interesting for the ways in which they grapple with fame, retreating into a mellower, more laidback sound that communicates both casual detachment and a fondness for another era. Here, those reference points are a little bit harder to pinpoint: the record is as inspired by ‘60s and ‘70s pop acts like the Mamas and the Papas and the Bee Gees as what she calls the “turn-of-the-century beachside optimism” of All Saints, S Club 7, Natalie Imbruglia, and Nelly Furtado, but they manifest as more of a vibe than a distinct, homogenous aesthetic. Its latter half, less breezy and darker than the first, makes for an interesting contrast, but Lorde fails to effectively accentuate that dynamic. Instead, she remains committed to a certain looseness that comes at the cost of strong hooks and resonant melodies.
There are glimpses of that euphoric rush. When Lorde summons that familiar drum machine on ‘Fallen Fruit’, the whole thing pulses back to life. “Come on and let the bliss begin,” she chants on the title track, echoing the “boom boom boom” that she broadcast on her previous album. ‘Solar Power’ turns out to be the kind of song that demands repeated listens, a highlight in an otherwise underwhelming album. Instead of channeling the movement and urgency of Body Talk-era Robyn, she invites her for a spoken word outro on ‘Secrets From A Girl (Who’s Seen It All)’, a song in which she addresses her younger self that ends with the lines: “When you’re ready, I’ll be outside/ And we can go look at the sunrise/ By euphoria mixed with existential vertigo? Cool…” You’re left wishing the album went to that place instead of alluding to it in an awkward interlude.
Though the lyrics can occasionally lack depth and specificity, the most persistent issue with Solar Power is that its languorous production does little to elevate them. ‘The Man With the Axe’, which Lorde originally wrote as a poem, contains images both evocative and radiant: “With my fistful of tunes that it’s painful to play/ Fingernail worlds like favourite seashells/ They fill up my nights and then they float away,” she sings, but the music is too listless to be immersive. ‘Stoned at the Nail Salon’ opens with one of her most striking lines – “Got a wishbone drying on the windowsill in my kitchen/ Just in case I wake up and realize I’ve chosen wrong” – but even as it touches on lofty subjects like the cyclical nature of time, the track as a whole feels static and weightless. Though it sometimes falls short, however, the instrumentation also allows Lorde to lean into both the vulnerability and lightness of her voice, which shines on the chorus of ‘California’ or the heartfelt ‘Big Star’, a tribute to her late dog, Pearl. The way she harmonizes with a background choir that includes Clairo and Phoebe Bridgers throughout adds not just texture but a sense of unspoken intimacy to the music, too.
Lorde doesn’t have to replicate the emotional transcendence of an album as larger-than-life as Melodrama, but the path she carves out on Solar Power remains blurry and uncertain. It feels willingly out of touch and out of time, but Lorde seems so comfortable keeping a distant aura of mystique that she fails to fully express the immensity of both the joys and anxieties that burble beneath the surface. The problem is that it often doesn’t go far enough: its quiet composure rarely scans as tranquillity, yet there’s not even a hint of messiness to suggest a greater depth of feeling. It’s no surprise that, when she emulates a kind of detached persona on ‘Mood Ring’, satire becomes its own emotional shield. “You’re all gonna watch me disappear into the sun,” Lorde sang on ‘Liability’, a line as poignant as it is confrontational. Here, she seems content to simply bask in its warm glow.