Lorde Opts Out on the Provocatively Subdued ‘Solar Power’

Eight years ago, the New Zealand pop singer-songwriter Lorde’s breakout hit “Royals” arrived with a seismic rumble and an observational critique: “Every song’s like ‘gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom, blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room.’”

For all its eye-rolling, refusenik attitude, the implicit joke was that “Royals” was in some sense one of those everysongs, too, lip-syncing along to the same sentiment it was rejecting. After all, that hook was one of the catchiest parts of the song, underlined by Lorde’s signature, soon-to-be-ubiquitous multitracked self-harmonies.

Eventual accusations that “Royals” was moralizing about hip-hop culture did not necessarily take into account the fact that it was paying studied homage to it — woven into the sonic DNA of the song’s low-blood-pressure, 808-heartbeat. Lorde’s music is often idiosyncratically personal, but it also speaks from the perspective of the royal “We.” Something that has always kept her point of view from feeling didactic — even if it has occasionally made her intentions feel a little muddled — is the way her music blurs the line between social commentary and self-own.

In a similar spirit, on the third track of her provocatively subdued third album, “Solar Power,” Lorde declares in her looping, vocal cursive, “Don’t want that California love” — this on a song that explicitly references Laurel Canyon folk, the most well-known Joan Didion essay and Quentin Tarantino’s Los Angeles pastiche “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Once again, it takes one to know one. “It’s all just a dream,” Lorde gently chides the Coachella-era flower children, on a weightless, twinkling song that sounds suspiciously like one.

Earlier this summer, when Lorde first released the album’s breezy title track, some listeners who had expected a sound similar to her bruising, resilient 2017 triumph, “Melodrama,” were left wondering if the 24-year-old known in civilian life as Ella Yelich-O’Connor was kidding. Was this a sendup of influencer culture or a music video explicitly designed as a carousel of Instagram screenshots? How could someone who’d previously made an emotionally operatic 11-song concept album about running into an ex at a party suddenly toss off a line as carefree as “Forget all of the tears that you’ve cried, it’s over”?

“Solar Power” and its subsequent singles, “Stoned at the Nail Salon” and “Mood Ring,” make more sense within the context of the album, thanks largely to the vivid scene-setting opener, “The Path.” Atop a murky guitar, Lorde presents a series of impressionistic snapshots of her post-“Royals” life: Attending the 2016 Met Gala in a cast, swiping a fork as a souvenir for her mother, “supermodels all dancing ’round a pharaoh’s tomb.” Elsewhere, she recalls the life-changing moment “when Carole called my name” (as in, Carole King announcing “Royals” as song of the year at the 2014 Grammys) and admits, “I’ve got hundreds of gowns, I’ve got paintings in frames and a throat that fills with panic every festival day.”

With the plunging swoop of chorus on “The Path,” though, Lorde suddenly rejects the notion that anyone present for such surreal, celebrity-studded scenes — including herself — can tell the average person how to live their life. “If you’re looking for a savior, well, that’s not me,” she sings, her lush stacked vocals this time highlighting the line’s unapologetic defiance.

Lorde, though, is hardly alone in this sentiment. It is somewhat remarkable to consider how many pop albums of the past year have taken up the sometimes-debilitating stress associated with modern-day fame as their main theme: Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever,” Clairo’s “Sling,” and Lana Del Rey’s “Chemtrails Over the Country Club” all chronicle their creators’ burnout and consider, to varying degrees, packing it in and quitting the pop game forever. (A similar conversation has been happening with young women in the sports world, too.) It is perhaps not such a coincidence that three of these four albums, including “Solar Power,” were produced mostly by the seemingly busiest producer in the music industry, the girl-pop-Zelig Jack Antonoff.

What keeps much of “Solar Power” from really taking root, though, is that most of these songs are written from the perspective of an enviably serene person snugly on the other side of that struggle. “Dancing with my girls, only having two drinks, then leaving/It’s a funny thing, thought you’d never gain self control,” Lorde sings blithely on one of the album’s more cloying numbers, “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All).” At times, “Stoned” and the otherwise incisive “The Man With the Axe” depict personal growth and maturity as a universal footbridge that one decisively crosses once and for all around age 21, rather than a messy, ongoing, lifelong process of stops and false starts. “I thought I was a genius,” she reflects on “Axe,” “but now I’m 22.” At least wait until Saturn returns, Lorde!

Make no mistake, amber is the color of her energy, at least at the moment. The mood board of her career peak, “Melodrama,” though, contained a whole kaleidoscope of color, and it’s that wonderful album’s sense of contrast and sonic dynamism that’s missing the most here. Every song on “Solar Power” pulls from a similar and finely curated aesthetic — early 2000s “CW”-theme-song pop; sun-drenched ’70s folk; just a pinch of Kabbalah-era Madonna — and rarely draws outside those lines, let alone picks up differently hued crayons. Name-dropped proper nouns too often feel like a pile of signifiers one step away from being shaped into sharper observations. Even the songs that most directly skewer modern-day wellness culture (the spiritual satire “Mood Ring,” the devilishly emasculating “Dominoes”) would not exactly be offensive to the ears if they were played during a yoga class’s savasana.

Perhaps the most stirring moments on the album come toward the very end, at the conclusion of the loose, winding six-minute closer, “Oceanic Feeling.” It’s partially a showcase of the striking, near-photographic clarity Lorde can sometimes achieve with her lyrics (“I see your silver chain levitate when you’re kickflipping”) and a kind of guided visualization of an eventual life after pop stardom. The girl who just eight years ago was asking, however playfully, to be your ruler is now singing with a stirring serenity, “I’ll know when it’s time to take off my robes and step into the choir.”

Even as it has billowed to consider such lofty elements as water, sun and air, Lorde’s close-miked music has retained such a careful intimacy that, at times, you can still actually hear her smiling. But like a beaming Instagram photo selectively chosen from a vast camera roll of outtakes, “Solar Power” stops just short of offering a full, varied range of expressions.

Lorde
“Solar Power”
(Republic)

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