In 2021, pop’s upper echelon is all about leaving stardom behind. We’re in the midst of an era defined by records that, whether lyrically or musically, say goodbye to the lavishness of fame, the perils of overexposure and the exhaustion of zeitgeist-hopping inherent to the form.
Taylor Swift’s one-two punch of sedate, quarantine-made records, folklore and evermore, eschewed diaristic lyrics and chart-ready sounds in favour of fiction and loosely folk-leaning ambiance; Billie Eilish’s long-awaited sophomore record, last month’s Happier Than Ever, referenced Frank Sinatra and Julie London, expressed her wish to retreat from the spotlight and featured no big singles. Halsey’s forthcoming album is produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, famed experimental musicians from Nine Inch Nails whose work over the previous decade has mostly been writing moody, Oscar-winning scores.
Now comes Lorde’s Solar Power, the New Zealand-born pop musician’s third album and a definitive exit from the trappings of celebrity life. Early on, she makes her intentions plain. “Goodbye to all the bottles, all the models, bye to the clouds in skies that all hold no rain,” she sings on the dazed, gorgeous “California”. And even before that, on the album’s first track, she issues a carefree but subtextually spiky message to the listeners who may have taken her past work as gospel: “If you’re looking for a saviour, well that’s not me / You need someone to take your pain for you? Well, that’s not me.”
Although well intentioned, that message – that warning, as it may be – sets the tone for an album that is enervated in sound and often incoherent in message: an abdication from pop star life which spends so much time telegraphing its irrelevance to the pop conversation that it feels like it might buckle under the weight of self-importance. Melodrama – Lorde’s shining, still-revelatory 2017 sophomore album – has grown in stature since its release because of its total refusal to talk down to its listeners; by contrast, Solar Power, from its earliest moments, seems very interested in telling listeners how to feel and what to think – about youth, the state of the world and Lorde herself. Although there are moments of vivid, dreamlike beauty within Solar Power, it’s tainted with the implication that listeners may not have the critical faculties to see Lorde’s output as art, rather than to take it as instruction.
As opposed to the plush pinks and mauves of Melodrama, the palette of Solar Power is all midday sun beating down – the bright blue of the sky and the ocean; warm golden sand; hot natural tones. Lorde conjures this through a mix of what I would term daytime sounds: noodling, gently warped guitar, both acoustic and electric; breathy girl-group harmonies courtesy of pop it-girls Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo, as well as New Zealand alt-country crooner Marlon Williams; gauzy synths that wash over the music but never provide thickness or driving force.
The references Lorde has brought up in interviews are decidedly of the moment – the ingratiating grooves of 2000s R&B stars such as Nelly Furtado, psychedelic-ish ’70s folk a la The Mamas & The Papas and, on lead single “Solar Power”, Primal Scream and George Michael. In its thinnest moments, such as the surfy kissoff “Dominoes”, the album feels closer to the kind of music you might hear being played by a shirtless, sunburnt guest in the common room of a Barcelona youth hostel: Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours”, any number of Jack Johnson songs. To term this “uncool” would be disingenuous: Solar Power speaks to a new strain of West Coast fashion culture typified by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, the email newsletter Blackbird Spyplane, and Lorde’s friend Cazzie David – celebrities fusing rough-hewn California ecoculture with streetwear, high fashion and an obsession with jam bands.
Environmentalism is an active theme. Opener “The Path” ends with a wish that “the sun will show us the path”, while “Fallen Fruit”, a dark ballad evoking ’70s folk and violent cult films such as Midsommar and The Wicker Man, chastises an older generation for depleting the Earth’s natural resources. “Leader of a New Regime” finds Lorde fantasising about an island where she can escape climate catastrophe. It’s an admirable message but a confused one. Lorde asks us to treat her not as a leader, but spends much of the record delivering messages about global heating that are didactic and simplistic to the extreme, more so than anything on Melodrama or her debut album Pure Heroine.
She details the importance of not putting excessive product into the world – hence her decision to not produce Solar Power on CD – but, as is de rigueur for pop stars, she is releasing extensive merchandise lines and, by my count, producing the record in no fewer than five different limited edition vinyl pressings totalling thousands of units, despite this format being markedly more catastrophic for the environment than CDs. No individual can solve the climate crisis, to be sure, but a pop star is a corporation and an individual: listening to this record while scanning the virtual shelves on Lorde’s official store is not unlike watching a Coca-Cola ad espousing the need to recycle.
Perhaps in an attempt to rid the record of relatability – the kind of quality that might lead a listener to proclaim Lorde as their “saviour” – Solar Power finds Lorde refocusing her lyrical style from the impressionistic and tactile to the intensely specific. The album is studded with references to the most rarefied aspects of celebrity life: attending the Met Gala, packing a suitcase full of garments by Simone Rocha and Phoebe Philo’s Céline, a rumour that an old friend has been “doing yoga with Uma Thurman’s mother”, being a “teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash”. This new outlook is revealing in a decidedly topical way, like how an embarrassing tabloid photo might provide the illusion that you “know” a celebrity but actually says nothing about the figure’s inner life. The references give the album a frustrating impermeability and, although this may be the point, it’s not conducive to immersive or durable art.
Solar Power was produced largely with Jack Antonoff, the pop svengali who has produced recent records by Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, Clairo, The Chicks and more. Lorde herself has decried as sexist accusations that Antonoff leads her direction – “I know that there are certain hallmarks of what Jack does and some of those things I really love and some of them I don’t like. And I beat them out of the work that we do together,” she told The New York Times – but that defence, in my opinion, ignores that the hallmark of Antonoff’s style is not a specific sound but an encouragement to his collaborators to treat songwriting like diary-writing or therapy. He always wants, as he once told Pitchfork, to “go further” in the specifics of songwriting. You can hear this in Clairo’s Sling, which details the misogyny she’s faced in the music industry; St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home, which zeroes in on her relationship with her con-man father; and The Chicks’ Gaslighter, a record almost comically specific in its many references to lead singer Natalie Maines’ divorce. It’s hard not to hear Solar Power in a lineage of records that trade intellectual and emotional depth for splashy detail, the common factor of which is Antonoff.
Parts of Solar Power are as resplendent as anything in Lorde’s catalogue, though. “Mood Ring”, one of a couple of songs I suspect will endure from this set, skewers wellness culture with wit but without pretension – a sparkling, intensely catchy anthem for those of us who keep crystals in our bags, knowing full well that they add nothing but weight. “I can’t feel a thing,” she sighs, “I keep looking at my mood ring.” It’s a rare moment that makes eye contact with a listener, rather than looking down from far above; it is inadvertently more revealing than any of the songs that trade in salacious detail.
Solar Power’s emotional loftiness may be a reaction to fans’ adoration of her past work, which suggests a saddening miscalculation on Lorde’s part: that what listeners liked about Melodrama was what it said about her, not what it said about them.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2021 as "Lorde of the mood rings".
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