Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Lorde Solar Power

Republic
2021
Republic
2021

Lorde has always expressed discomfort with the idea of being an avatar for anything. But her music invited that sort of projection. Her songs made teenage life sound like a communal experience; they felt like one-on-one conversations, a friend recounting the story of that wild night or that intense feeling. Before she was ever really famous, she was already singing about how she was “kind of over gettin’ told to throw my heads up in the air” (so there). Her sophomore album, Melodrama, was sidetracked by heartbreak; instead of dealing with the uneasiness she felt over her newfound celebrity, she descended into the more relatable territory of romantic revenge and used that as fuel to make an album that was vivid and galvanizing.

But, after another four-year break between albums, she’s back to confronting that fame-related uneasiness on Solar Power. She comes at it obliquely, though, in lines that sound as though she’s accepted her tragic fate as a woman of means: ​”I’ve got hundreds of gowns, I’ve got paintings in frames, and a throat that fills with panic every festival day,” and, in a wistfully joking way, “got a trunkful of Simone and Céline and of course my magazines.” The whole album is rather oblique, slight by design. There’s a lack of urgency throughout, and intentional though it may be, it leaves the album sounding flat. Solar Power isn’t necessarily a bad hang if you approach it as background music, something to throw on while you’re sipping drinks with your friends in the summertime, absorbing it by osmosis. But for an artist that usually sounds so immediate and vital, it’s hard not to feel like this is a letdown.

I am (I guess controversially?) a big fan of lead single “Solar Power,” which sounds like Father Of The Bride by way of Hoku, with a delayed gratification payoff of a hook that warrants repetition. It’s one of the only songs on Solar Power that scans as a more traditional single. The rest of the album feels like a way to reset expectations, to present Lorde as a more low-key individual who wants to simply exist outside the pressure, to let go of the melodrama and just bask in the sun. It’s all spelled out on opener “The Path,” which in no uncertain terms rejects whatever you want to put on Lorde’s shoulders: “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.” Lorde clearly does not want to be the voice of a generation, and that’s alright, but Solar Power lacks the ambition that comes with someone who is at least flirting with the possibility that maybe a single song could change your life. (“Broadcast the boom boom boom, and make ’em all dance to it,” as Lorde once sang.)

Lorde spends Solar Power reflecting on the empty opulence of a semi-charmed life and her attempts to get more in touch with the natural world. The idea of escape hangs over the album — escape from the spotlight, from impending climate catastrophe, from the noise of being online, from yourself by transcending to a higher plane. On “California,” she traces her own career from the time Carole King presented her with the Song Of The Year award at the Grammys in 2014 through her decision to leave Hollywood behind and return to her native New Zealand to soak up the sun in a different locale. “Goodbye to all the bottles, all the models, bye to the kids in the lines for the new Supreme,” she sings in the cheeky and too on-the-nose chorus. “Don’t want that California love.”

Lorde might be rejecting that California love, but she sure accepts the Laurel Canyon style, by way of bohemian chic. The album’s sound is breezy and sun-kissed — it’s filled with echoey acoustic guitars and burbling percussion and the warm background hum of the environment around her. It’s mellow and laidback, sometimes too laidback to really register. There are indeed a lot of the same touches producer Jack Antonoff has applied to albums by Lana Del Rey and Clairo in recent months — hisses and warbles and Wurlitzers and a general shaggy casualness. There’s a persistent background choir made up of Phoebe Bridgers, Clairo, and fellow Kiwis Marlon Williams and James Milne. Drums come courtesy of the legendary studio musician Matt Chamberlain.

It’s all very crisp and clean and well-composed, but it’s hard not to want a few moments when Lorde really goes for it, or at least does something unexpected within the fabric of the album’s established sound. The notion of resuscitating this era of guitar-pop music — M2M and Natalie Imbruglia and S Club 7 (all artists who have songs that I enjoy) — is more intriguing than the execution here. The same ideas are revisited again and again to diminishing returns. Solar Power has nothing that approaches the dynamic stakes of Lorde’s best songs — tracks like “Ribs” and “Supercut” sound like pressure cookers boiling over. There’s a part in “Fallen Fruit” where Lorde returns to her trusty drum machine for a forward-looking interlude, and it feels exciting and locked-in in a way that the rest of Solar Power is decidedly not.

But Lorde is nothing if not committed to the aesthetic. She doesn’t seem to be too interested in courting listeners immediately this time around. “I would almost value people not understanding it at first,” she said in a recent New York Times profile. “I think I’m still giving something that’s really digestible, but it’s my pleasure to confound. I’m down to be that for people.” Solar Power is certainly on its own wavelength. The back half of the album is particularly meandering and in its own head, less sunny and more shadowy but still indistinct. Songs like “The Man With The Axe” and “Leader Of A New Regime” are too self-consciously spacey — they sound too “stoned in the nail salon,” to use Lorde’s own parlance. There are similar songs that are a bit more successful, such as the wiry “Big Star,” which charts a potential path forward for Lorde, landing somewhere between Waxahatchee and “Fifteen”-era Taylor Swift. But it’s also not much different than what your average indie-adjacent singer-songwriter is doing right now.

There are parts of the album that are enjoyable, lines that have gotten stuck in my head that make me think there might be the bones of a good album rattling around somewhere in here. Lorde’s voice sounds gorgeous throughout Solar Power, far removed from the breathy, heavy intonations we’ve gotten used to from her. The way it streams upward on “California” and builds up into a gospel breakthrough on “The Path” are new ways to let light into her songs. When the album finds these alternate routes to that old communal feeling, I can almost get with what Lorde is dishing out. But that new lightness just has too many missteps. Lorde utilizes the language and imagery of self-help a little too loosely. Too often she sounds like your friend who won’t stop talking about their birth chart. “I’m tryna get well from the inside/ Plants and celebrity news/ All the vitamins I consume/ Let’s fly somewhere Eastern, they’ll have what I need,” she sings on “Mood Ring.”

A line like that should be delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, but it’s unclear throughout Solar Power how much Lorde is in on the joke, so to speak — whether she’s buying into Goop-era wellness or sending it up. There’s a reason why so many speculated that the “Solar Power” music video was an initiation into some sort of cult, and Lorde herself explicitly said that the similarly cultish video for “Mood Ring” is meant to be satirical. But it doesn’t scan as satire, no matter how much she insists that it is. Satire only works when you’re not completely emulating what you’re satirizing — the language of self-help is already so over-the-top that there’s just not much further you can push it. The reason why a movie like Midsommar works is because it all eventually turns into a hellish nightmare. But “Solar Power” and “Mood Ring” seem destined for placement on yoga playlists, which is fine if that’s the market one wants to tap into, but when a satire can just pass for the real thing it has effectively failed in its intention.

“Part of why this album was so FUN to make was that I got to explore these tropes of people seeking wellness, enlightenment or even utopia,” Lorde wrote in one of her newsletters. That sounds like a worthwhile concept for an album! I want to hear that album. But there’s just not enough evidence within Solar Power itself to support this reading. More often than not, it falls into the same tropes it’s supposed to be interrogating. If the songs were stronger, all this would be forgivable. But they’re not. I don’t think Lorde is being disingenuous when she says that she’s channeling these different perspectives — in songs like “Dominoes,” where she sings about a man who skates by through life with no consequences, or on “Secrets From A Girl (Who’s Seen It All),” which she addresses to her younger self.

Lorde clearly finds something of value in the crystals and the astrological charts that such a lifestyle dictates. And that’s all well and good — it can be illuminating to dream about the possibilities of how the natural world aligns with ourselves! But these songs lack a necessary bite. I would never speak a bad word about Robyn, but I wish the spoken word outro of “Secrets From A Girl” did not exist — Robyn acts as flight attendant and has to say lines like “Your emotional baggage can be picked up at carousel #2/ Please be careful so that it doesn’t fall onto someone you love.” It’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s just not very funny, or far enough removed from the reality of wellness culture. It’s moments like that which really make it hard to buy into Solar Power as a whole. It all comes across as kind of cringe.

I am inclined to give Lorde the benefit of the doubt based on how much I love her previous two albums, but there’s a lack of cynicism to some of these songs that I think might have made them stronger. I’ve been rewatching Enlightened, The White Lotus creator Mike White’s much-adored but underseen HBO show that’s centered around a character who is immersed in the world of self-help. She’s well-intentioned but ultimately destructive, conflicted and fucked-up but easy to root for, neither all good or all bad. I want Solar Power to be a little messier. It would have made for a more interesting album. Lorde has always seemed so perceptive, but Solar Power‘s message and overall sound are muddy without that deeper engagement. It arrives with a resounding shrug. I guess that’s the pitfall of making an album that is so even-keeled.

Solar Power is out 8/20 via Republic.

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