It’s been almost four years since New Zealand pop sensation Lorde released her magnum opus Melodrama. A commercial disappointment but a critical darling, Melodrama was a redefining moment in her career, pushing her away from the adolescent minimalism and cynicism of her no less superb debut Pure Heroine and into baroque, intense and experimental synth pop with incisive and revealing songwriting that exposed her vulnerabilities, bitterness and insecurity following the unhappy dissolution of a relationship. It may well be the best breakup album ever made, certainly for this generation, though Igor fans might disagree. Following on from Melodrama was always going to be a tall order and fans had little idea what to expect from such a secretive artist as Lorde. Any three years are a long time and a lot has happened in these three years, and the release of her lead single and title track “Solar Power” found her in a completely different head space to Melodrama‘s lead single “Green Light”.
While “Green Light” was dazzling and personal in equal measure, “Solar Power” has more in common with the Pure Heroine era. Once again, Lorde styles herself the voice of a generation, though this time, showing the sunnier side. After eighteen months of being stuck inside doomscrolling, “Solar Power” is a song to unplug and go outside to. Get back to nature and stop worrying so much, for a while at least. It was a jarring statement to fans and a rude awakening to anyone expecting Melodrama part two.
On one hand, it’s easy to see how Solar Power could be seen as a disappointment and that narrative has already started to form across the internet. With the world still extracting itself from a period of turmoil unprecedented in our lifetime, a message of self love and indulgence framed as a grand political gesture is really easy to see as completely out of step with listeners who previously found themselves drawn to the cynicism of Pure Heroine and the bitterness of Melodrama, many of whom are emerging from the pandemic years freshly politicized and ready to reject the privileged and the complacent.
There is one respect in which Solar Power does feel very timely, and that’s in its sound. The album was produced entirely in collaboration with Jack Antonoff, who in recent years has produced for many of the biggest names in pop: Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lana Del Rey, and indeed Lorde, on Melodrama. As a result, the sonic shift of Solar Power sounds less like innovation and more like conformity, falling back into the soft pillowy synth production Antonoff is known for, with delicate percussion, plucky guitars, layers of harmonies and airy groundswells of horns and strings. “Solar Power” is an uplifting song that doesn’t punch upwards or lead the avant garde of pop. What it is though, is a great song. If you’re looking for a blissed-out summer vibe, you could hardly do any better.
Although the sound of “Solar Power” the single is fairly typical of the album of the same name, which comes in the shape of twelve tracks of serene, lush folk pop, its sunseeking attitude isn’t all that representative of the album. Look beneath the surface and the old Lorde is still very much there—her sarcastic sense of humour, her bitter streak, her cold cynicism, her vulnerability and emotional fragility, it’s all there to hear if you listen for it. “Dominoes” expresses her resentment towards a ‘mister start again’, whose ability to reinvent his surroundings without consequence fills her with jealousy. “Mood Ring” satirises wellness culture and the way people look to material objects to tell them how to feel, and though you likely wouldn’t know it just from the lyrics, “Big Star” is an ode to her beloved dog Pearl whose death last year was believed to have been a factor in Lorde’s ongoing musical silence.
The album does have its faults. The first four tracks and the last two are superb: gorgeous, tender and bittersweet. The others aren’t quite so invigorating, but there’s something commendable about them all. The most common criticism I’ve seen for Solar Power is that it’s boring, either because the songs aren’t as up tempo as they have been in the past, or because Antonoff’s instrumentation isn’t as exciting or innovative as past records, sounding more bland and safe. Too folky and slow for a mainstream crowd and too poppy and sanitary for more refined palates.
I can appreciate those criticisms, though for my money it’s the few weirder moments of Solar Power that are the most confusing. The track “Fallen Fruit” appears to sample the bleeping sound a truck makes when it’s reversing or a fridge makes when it’s left open. It’s immediately pretty aggravating and distracting. The extended spoken word outro to “Secrets from a Girl” is also the album’s weakest attempt at satirising wellness culture, with a confused, perhaps deliberately nonsensical metaphor where she plays an airline hostess or perhaps a spa hostess or a tour guide—it’s not very clear and doesn’t develop into anything coherent or insightful. Fortunately such moments are few and far between on Solar Power, nor are any of them serious enough to mar even a single track for its duration.
The best songs on the album do delve deeper into the concept and theme of the record though, which functions as a meditation on Lorde’s status as the voice of a generation and the feelings of helplessness that engenders in her. Her fans looked to her because they identified with her feelings of loss, disaffection and confusion, and now a lost, disaffected, confused and by now, very out of touch and privileged person is left trying her best to answer their questions for them. The album’s stunning opening track “The Path” reflects on her current position and the journey ahead of us all: “if you’re looking for a savoir, well that’s not me […] let’s hope the sun will show us the path”. The idea of her fans rejecting this statement is kind of tragic.
There’s something in how flawed a project Solar Power is that’s unexpectedly more revealing than a more accomplished project could be. I’ve often felt that an artists more quixotic mistakes reveal more about them as people than their greatest achievements, and although it seems absurd to call Solar Power that given how superb a great deal of the record is, there’s a touch of that to the record. As magnificent and raw as Melodrama was, I’ve never been more acutely aware of Lorde as a real, flawed human than I am listening to Solar Power.
Solar Power might already have been labelled as a disappointment by many, however, the more I listen to the album the more enraptured I become with the elegant tunes, the refined production, the stunning performances and the confused emotionality of the lyrics. I felt the same sense of disappointment most did when I realised we wouldn’t emerge from this album’s cycle with another Melodrama, but once I shook off the weight of expectation, I found more and more of the same Lorde whose music I fell in love with on Solar Power.