Review: Lorde’s Solar Power

October, 2021
Allison Zhao, Blog Correspondent
Allison Zhao lives and studies in Toronto. She loves reviewing books, always appreciates cafe recommendations, and probably has a pen you can borrow.

After a couple of years of absence from the music industry and public eye, Lorde has returned with her third full-length album, Solar Power. It’s starkly different from her previous work, and yet still deeply personal to Lorde herself – an important aspect of both her debut album, Pure Heroine, and its critically acclaimed successor, Melodrama. In Solar Power, Lorde reflects on environmental and natural themes, her distaste for celebrity culture, and her continued growing up since becoming a star.

In 2013, it was impossible to avoid Lorde’s breakout hit, “Royals,” but perhaps easier to forget that her meteoric rise to fame happened when Lorde herself was only sixteen years old. She makes reference to the success of “Royals” on Solar Power by recalling Carole King presenting her with the Grammy Award for Song of the Year and her realization at that point that her life had been changed for good. Elsewhere, she sings “couldn’t wait to turn fifteen, then you blink and it’s been ten years” as an observation on both the upheaval her own life underwent, and how quickly youth passes in general.

Now twenty-four, it is perhaps inevitable that Lorde would turn her sights away from Pure Heroine’s teen disillusionment and Melodrama’s intensely emotional recounting of her first breakup. It is refreshing to see her not only take on different subject matter but also experiment with her musical approach; on Solar Power, she’s traded the electronic production and synthesizers for a gentler sound led by acoustic guitars. Sometimes this new sound works, such as on the beachy, lighthearted title track, where it helps provide a sunny escape from the trials of a working life. The softer sound also contributes to the dazed headspace of “Mood Ring,” where Lorde assumes the persona of someone who “can’t feel a thing” and relies on a mood ring to discern their emotional state.

 It’s clear from the first listen-through that Lorde is not chasing the highs of another smash hit like “Royals,” but at times the album threatens to blend together in its own fog, meandering through an array of topics but failing to give any of them the distinct weight they deserve. The violent title of “The Man with the Axe” and the tender vulnerability of its lyrics blur out into an ambivalent middle ground due to the unremarkable production. Similarly, “Big Star,” which should be warmly loving and transformed by grief – Lorde wrote it about her dog before he passed away, and in messages to fans, she has discussed the impact that her dog had on her life – is unable to really distinguish itself sonically and does not leave a clear mark on the album.

Occasional breakaways from the sonic haze include “Dominoes,” a sardonic commentary on a man who consistently squanders his second chances, and the catchy “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All),” which is a letter from Lorde to her past self. The former is fun but brief, and the latter rejects the wild partying life in favour of a more stable outlook (“Only having two drinks…thought you’d never gain self-control”). These breaks are not unwelcome, but still do not produce real standouts. “Secrets” flips between being poignant and a little too-on-the-nose; featuring Robyn, its spoken outro parodies a flight attendant’s spiel. It’s quirky but not necessarily re-listenable.

In terms of lyrical content, Solar Power is still never too blissed-out to see straight: “Mood Ring” takes aim at pseudoscience and faux wellness culture, and in “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” Lorde questions whether it was the right choice to live mostly away from the glamorous celebrity life she has access to. “Leader of a New Regime” is a strange one-and-a-half minute interlude that offers the image of a privileged pop star packing nothing but dresses and magazines to flee an environment made unlivable by the climate crisis. As a song, it feels incomplete, but the topic of climate change is echoed in “Fallen Fruit,” which protests the environmental damage done by previous generations.

Even though her sound has changed, Lorde’s introspection remains, and like Pure Heroine and Melodrama, Solar Power weaves together an image of where Lorde is in her life right now, and what matters to her. Now, though, her focuses are less intensely relatable. The title track and “Oceanic Feeling” offer a look into an idyllic beach life in Lorde’s home country of New Zealand that seems a long way from pandemic lockdowns and working endless hours on a screen. While to some it might ring out-of-touch (not all of us can throw our cellular devices into the water), it’s hard to begrudge Lorde her happiness and a more peaceful life. As she declares on the album opener “The Path,” “if you’re looking for a saviour, well, that’s not me,” and she gently reminds listeners on “Secrets from a Girl” that “no one’s gonna feel the pain for you.” Those looking for Lorde to offer up an album that feels straight out of our collective diary will not find it with Solar Power.

It’s easy to list the things Lorde is not trying to do with this album, but it’s harder to pin down exactly what her intentions were. She has certainly separated herself from her previous work, notably unafraid to explore new territory, and maintains her unique vocal talent. But despite its bright spots, Solar Power ultimately feels like a vague interlude to something else that it never reached.

 It’s clear from the first listen-through that Lorde is not chasing the highs of another smash hit like “Royals,” but at times the album threatens to blend together in its own fog, meandering through an array of topics but failing to give any of them the distinct weight they deserve.

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