Album Review: Lorde – Solar Power

[Universal; 2021]

Lorde is in an ivory tower. Living in far-flung New Zealand, not wanting for money, seemingly without desire to court fame beyond that which is thrust upon her, she has the freedom to more or less disappear in between albums. Unfortunately, this aversion to the spotlight only means fans heap more expectation upon her, especially after her exceptional 2017 album Melodrama, which seemed to be able to speak to and excite everyone of her age group (and beyond). Her down-to-earth nature made her seem like a worthy icon; someone you could both admire and be friends with. All it means is that anticipation for her third album, Solar Power, especially after a year of standstill and horror, was incalculably high.

It’s an expectation she immediately ducks on album opener “The Path”, admitting that she “won’t take the call if it’s the label or the radio” and that “if you’re looking for a saviour, that’s not me.” Well, while it’s an inauspicious way to kick off the album, it’s fair enough, nobody should be placing a saviour-level burden on someone so young – especially a pop singer. Instead, with Solar Power, Lorde wants to give us somewhere to escape, a fantasy island where the worries of the world are reduced to background noise and everyone believes in the healing powers of meditation and spirituality. However, while this may be possible for someone in Lorde’s position, it’s much more difficult for the vast majority of the world.

She knows this too. She’s always been very self-aware, which has helped bring a level of smirking sardonicism to her work, and she attempts a similar approach here. Once she’s got the caveat of “The Path” out the way, things get off to a decent start with the title track and lead single. A Primal Scream-goes-to-the-beach bounce, on “Solar Power” she pokes fun at her distaste for winter, goes off the grid by throwing her phone away, and embraces the flirtatious warmth of the sun. It’s not the most insightful, but it’s hard not to agree that summer is great and phones are bad.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much deeper or more relatable, except in a couple of spots. In its title alone, “Stoned at the Nail Salon” seems like a navel-gazing missive about the kind of activity a privileged person with plenty of time might enjoy. However, she manages to rescue it from being vacuous by extrapolating on thoughts about the passing of time and fading beauty, coming to a poignant conclusion of “spend all of the evenings you can with the people who raised you.” A gloriously weightless song with feathery guitars perfectly supporting her spun-out trains of thought, “Stoned at the Nail Salon” should have rightfully taken up the mantle of fan-favourite album deep cut – the fact that it was put forward as the second single from Solar Power does it no favours and demonstrates the album’s main flaw: its sonic homogeneity.

There are several more songs that eschew beats in favour of floating by on lightweight guitar, but none as interesting. In fact, there is a run of four tracks in a row where nary a drum is heard, and, with scant memorable melodies or lyrics, the album unavoidably sags. “The Man with the Axe” is the first of this run, and is notable for it featuring Lorde’s most vulnerably besotted lyricism to date, but musically sounds like a distant echo of “Nail Salon”. “Dominoes” is about someone who does yoga with Uma Thurman’s mother and used to do a shit-ton of cocaine but now smokes a lot of weed – but nothing about the instrumentation brings them to life or makes us think they’re someone we should be interested in; it sounds like a demo waiting to built upon. “Big Star” is a tribute to her deceased dog Pearl, but one that wallows in mournful anonymity rather than champions with the kind of polychromatic adoration the beloved pet surely deserved.

Concluding this run of slow-burners is “Leader of a New Regime”, a 90-second insertion where she begs for someone to lead the world out of the current gloom. At this point, after several snoozy tracks, it feels like her reminding us ‘see, I told you I wasn’t the one to save the world’, but it feels more cowardly than identifiable.

When there is a bit more energy in the tracks, Solar Power fairs slightly better. On the jaunty “Fallen Fruit” she makes passing comment on our contributions to global warming, but skips over that into a caricature of psychedelic pop. “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” seems like the perfect set up for one of her drama-filled bangers, but, while it has a catchy chorus, it has none of the natural wit she displayed in her earlier outings, and finishes with an unearned attempt at a comedic spoken-word outro from Robyn. “Mood Ring” is the album’s best balancing of her sharp tongue and genuine concerns about the future, buoyed by an insistent rhythm and an acoustic guitar line that borrows cannily from early-2000s pop. If Solar Power had several more upbeat and self-aware bops like “Mood Ring” it would have been a success – as it is, the song arrives penultimately on the record, after the aforementioned sag, too late to save it.

Solar Power finishes with “Oceanic Feeling”, a gorgeous conclusion that finds Lorde simply enjoying the beauty of being alive – but its impact is diminished by there having been several other sleep-inducing slow burners earlier in the record. Unfortunately, the only “Oceanic Feeling” that Solar Power leaves you with is emptiness. Where each song on Melodrama felt like rushing into the next room at a wild house party to discover a new scandal or hookup, each successive song on Solar Power feels like returning to the same yoga class day after day; there might be the odd new mantra or position, but there’s nothing truly revelatory.