Lorde returns with a self-aware, scaled-back album. Its holistic beauty and revelations about the natural world are often lost in the drab music.
You have to act so dumb to be happy, nowadays. You can’t read the news and you can’t check social media; don’t look at the death toll, don’t look at the wildfire, don’t look at the weather. How do you separate yourself from the world without succumbing to denial? Maybe you could go away for a while—take some time to recharge. New Zealand sounds nice. I think the air is cleaner.
Lorde is there, and she’s chilling. After she wrapped the world tour for her second album, 2017’s Melodrama, she went home to Auckland and was hardly seen in public. She undertook a tech detox, giving up social media and setting her phone screen to grayscale, to make it less enticing. When she wanted to gain perspective on the climate crisis, she traveled to Antarctica. She made Solar Power, a self-aware, scaled-back album that asks you to “breathe out and tune in,” like a strange little paperbound spiritual text at a hippie bookshop. It’s part newfound realization of social and environmental consciousness, part self-help guide: her rationale for choosing the quiet life and reconnecting with nature, a diagram for threading the needle of joy when you might also live to see the end of Earth. Her message is—literally—light.
Once, a Lorde album was a monument years in the making, but here she asks us to be satisfied with everyday beauty, unassuming arrangements of guitar, keys, percussion, and voice. Produced once again with the ubiquitous Jack Antonoff, Solar Power sounds more interesting when it bottles the jasmine air of Laurel Canyon folk, less interesting when it emulates that sound’s descendants in early-2000s soft rock (Sheryl Crow, Jewel) without any of the hooks or energy of radio pop. These songs don’t move like the songs on Melodrama: no startling change-ups, no fireworks, just a spoken interlude by Robyn and a few distracting foley effects. On the title track and on the closer, Lorde communes directly with nature, and in between, she smuggles in love songs, dreams, doubts, a memorial for her late dog, Pearl, and, for the first time, close vocal harmonies with other singers, including Clairo and Phoebe Bridgers. It is the first Lorde album that doesn’t try to tug on your sleeve, or stare directly into your eyes. It feels like doing less.
Lorde didn’t log off entirely; people who live under rocks aren’t nearly so well-versed in Antonoff discourse. Did you see her putting away Hot Ones like they’re chicken nuggets? She’s been reading about the Sacklers (“Born in the year of OxyContin”) and watching Tarantino (“Once upon a time in Hollywood…”). She’s subscribing to trendy newsletters and checking her finsta, which maybe helps explain the album’s bent towards Y2K vibes and wellness fads. Solar Power is a little bit out-of-time, but now and then it taps into the kind of paralyzing quarter-life celebrity crisis found recently on albums by Billie Eilish and Clairo. “Teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash,” Lorde says on opener “The Path,” explaining what she’s escaped. She begins the gorgeous “California” with Carole King announcing her Grammy win for her hit single “Royals” in 2014 and writes a breakup song personifying Los Angeles as a “golden body” with a “cool hand around my neck.” She’s grateful to be away from it all, until she isn’t, and on the next song, “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” she wonders what might happen if she changed her mind and reclaimed her place among the glitterati.
More than ever, Lorde’s writing is the best part of her music, if only because the music is a little disappointing. “You felled me clean as a pine,” she sings to her lover on “The Man With the Axe,” and describes the dark concavity of a concert arena that’s shiny as a manicure and transient as the tide: “Fingernail worlds, like favorite seashells/They fill up my nights and then they float away.” The words are elegant, compact, enormous, rich in a kind of organic imagery that distinguishes Solar Power from Lorde’s past work. But while Melodrama purportedly unfolded within the confines of a house party, the concept came so naturally you didn’t have to think about it; it just felt like you were there. Solar Power tries to be bigger and smaller at the same time, spanning scenes of domestic bliss and apocalyptic flight without the conceptual architecture to unite them.
Trying for everything makes it all sound a little incoherent. On “Dominoes,” we watch an abuser skate free by reinventing himself as a new-age guy. There’s a kernel of a great idea in the way Lorde taps her voice across the syllables of the chorus, but the slack, demo-style recording won’t let it develop; city sirens ring in the distance as Antonoff’s guitar playing transports us to the grooviest coffeehouse on the beach. Three songs later, on “Mood Ring,” Lorde steps into a phony woo-woo persona herself, as if she too can buy the cure at a crystal shop. “Mood Ring,” as the artist was immediately at pains to say, is a satire of contemporary emotional detachment, a joke about a phone with a color screen—yet it’s too sweet to be biting, not sufficiently exaggerated to be funny, certainly not funny enough to pull off the squiggle of synth that enters beneath the line, “Let’s fly somewhere Eastern.” The shallowness comes to a head on “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All),” where the secret wisdom is occasionally heartbreaking (“’Member what you thought was grief before you got the call?”) and more often platitudinal (“You gotta want it for yourself”).
It’s worth making art that promises a way out, art that can approach climate anxiety with clear eyes and purpose instead of dissonance and dread. But most of Solar Power doesn’t solicit strong emotion in either direction. Shouldn’t an album about climate grief and puppy grief and social grief by one of the best pop songwriters of her generation make you feel something? The music cycles through chipper acoustic chords, mournful six-string lines, and drummer Matt Chamberlain’s effortless shuffle, never locking into the bittersweet angst of Natalie Imbruglia, the cerebral intricacy of Jewel, the mutual conviction of a TLC ballad. It’s soft and loose and textureless. The sharpest pain comes in a moan at the end of “Fallen Fruit,” one of two incantatory interludes inspired, if we can call it that, by pending environmental collapse: “How can I love what I know I am gonna lose?/Don’t make me choose.”
“Fallen Fruit” and its sister “Leader of a New Regime” are weird songs, but Solar Power leaves so much room to be weirder, wilder, more joyful. I’m thinking of something Lorde said to the newsletter Blackbird Spyplane about why she went to Antarctica and what she learned there: “To go someplace where all you’re thinking about all day is the climate and environment was clarifying, and also kind of mystifying.” Clarifying and mystifying: Is there any other way to feel in the thrall of our only planet? But there’s just one moment on Solar Power that does. It’s at the very end, “Oceanic Feeling,” after Lorde rambles around for a while, visiting a favorite ocean bluff, reflecting on the lives of her family members and future daughter, on her past self. The beat drops away, the music falls to a murmur, and in a fluttering voice, she calls up a beachside bonfire and ponders metaphoric self-immolation. The implication is that Lorde does not want to do this, not like this, forever; that true happiness will always be out there in front of you, the deep blue shadow over the water.
Buy: Rough Trade