Of Course I Wrote About Lorde's New Album
On "Solar Power," Lorde Doesn't Have All the Answers - And That's Why It's Great
Fact: Lorde is my favorite musical artist working.
This will come as no surprise to my close friends, but it is somewhat of a disclaimer for what’s to follow here…
I was vaguely aware of Ella Yelich-O’Connor as a teen pop sensation, as she came on the scene with the hit single “Royals” and the album Pure Heroine in 2013. I knew the earworms from the radio, but didn’t recognize her as a generational talent (despite collecting a Grammy for her work, she was never as omnipresent in the culture as Billie Eilish, who also ascended to the pop throne at 17).
It wasn’t until Lorde’s Melodrama era in 2017 that I truly understood her power.
I realized this was not an artist in danger of flaming out early - her story would continue to unfold for decades to come. Or, as David Bowie put it, Lorde is “the future of music.”
Melodrama hit during the summer of my college graduation. As I was undergoing a turbulent post-grad transition, I found solace in listening to Lorde navigate her own life changes. Melodrama was written while she was still in pain from a break-up and wrestling with the consequences of new fame. Conceived as an album set at a “house party” from the propulsive start to the next-day hangover, Melodrama had an exuberance that is felt on tracks like the first single “Green Light” - where Lorde shouts out all her emotions. Lorde defines heartbreak with lyrical precision, while also carefully exacting her lover’s revenge (one of the standout lyrics is “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark”).
Lorde is so open, and so good at defining her feelings, that it feels like she is speaking directly to the audience on songs like the uncomfortably candid “Liability.” Yet she also encourages the audience to dance once the tears have dried on songs like “Homemade Dynamite” and “Perfect Places” - examples of perfect pop songwriting.
By the time Lorde is reviewing her since-ended relationship in full on “Supercut,” you know you’re experiencing a masterpiece.
Despite not matching the commercial success of Pure Heroine, Melodrama was critically lauded - nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys. It was ranked #460 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest albums of all time, and #14 on Pitchfork’s albums of the decade.
After listening to Melodrama on repeat for a year, I went to see Lorde in concert on her “Melodrama World Tour” in 2018 (Mitski and Run the Jewels were the openers - an odd pairing but one I appreciated!). She dazzled the full stadium crowd at Prudential Center, showing love and appreciation for her fans (as someone who frequented the Lorde and Popheads subreddits during her years of inactivity knows, Lorde fans are a committed bunch). She displayed a full awareness of how her music has touched others, while putting on a true show that ended in confetti embossed with her handwritten lyrics.
Then, soon after completing her Melodrama World Tour in 2018, Lorde went away
She returned to her native New Zealand, absent except for the occasional e-mail blast to her fans. But when you leave behind a masterwork like Melodrama, you can’t truly remove yourself from the culture. In her wake, Lorde left behind successors - Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo and so many others. Angst-inflected pop stars who also dug deep and whispered into the mic.
I remember texting my friends after Olivia Rodrigo’s debut SNL performance in May 2021, when she sang “drivers license” and “good 4 u.” I’m an admitted Sour fan - especially of the song “brutal.” However, I couldn’t help but feel so many of Olivia’s fans were too young to remember one of her most essential inspirations (Rodrigo has frequently cited Lorde as a major influence). It was the first time I was actually upset at Lorde for staying away for so long…
Luckily, in June 2021 - Lorde reemerged with both a new single and music video.
“Solar Power” - a blast of serotonin in a beach paradise - felt very far from the haunted interiors of Melodrama. The song and the music video center nature - the sand, the lapping waves. The production combines elements of ‘60s psychedelia and ‘00s bubblegum pop, trading the synthesizers of Melodrama for acoustics. Whereas “Green Light” is a song that makes you want to outrace speeding cars on the city streets, “Solar Power” makes you feel light enough to flit away.
“Solar Power” was predictably divisive, kicking off an album cycle that turned fan against fan. While “Stoned at the Nail Salon” offered a bit of a throwback to Melodrama-era introspection, “Mood Ring” set off alarm bells among fans as Lorde mimicked a blonde “Goop”-era Gwyneth Paltrow.
The album Solar Power, released Friday, upended the expectations of those eagerly awaiting Melodrama 2.0. It is arcing and loose where Melodrama was driving and operatic. By releasing a more free-flowing, esoteric album without any obvious chart-toppers, Lorde has crafted something deliberately controversial - indicating a lack of interest in returning to the top of pop stardom.
Solar Power also received a mixed reception from music publications, far from the rapturous critical consensus on Melodrama. However, Solar Power reveals the central issue with scoring albums with numbers (such as the 6.8 that Solar received from Pitchfork) or simply tallying up the “hits” and “misses.” In an era of Twitter reactions and immediate rankings of songs, Solar Power is not an album of instant gratification.
Because Melodrama was a single storyline told by a woman possessed of her emotions, it was easy to realize its impact on first listen. What critics have dismissed as the muddled nature of Solar Power was actually part of the intent. It is meant to present a more layered, adult view of the world at large. It does not have a single through-line - it doubles back, it repeats, it argues with itself. It is allegedly Lorde’s “weed album” (her words), the musical equivalent of a hang-out movie.
Is the album perfect? No. It does not have the play-through quality of Melodrama (“The Man with the Axe” doesn’t feel essential - more like an obligation to a loved one), and sometimes Lorde’s songs don’t live up to their poppy or groovy inspirations.
But Lorde does something risky and mature on Solar Power - she declares that she doesn’t have all the answers. She’s living moment by moment too.
Her thesis is stated plainly in her opening track “The Path” - “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.” She is telling her audiences and Twitter Stans - the kind who repost her lyrics to commemorate life events - to look elsewhere for relief.
Similarly, don’t look to Lorde’s album as an instruction manual for life - as Lorde continually contradicts herself. Her album is suffused with climate dread (as in the Mamas and the Papas-style environmental anthem “Fallen Fruit”), but it is joyful. Her insistence that we praise the sun in “The Path” clashes with her send-up of wellness culture gurus in “Mood Ring.” A lot of critics have been uneasy about these mixed messages - viewing it as a lack of focus or consistent vision (questioning if Lorde truly knows what she wants to say). However, I view Lorde’s album as an honest examination of living in the 21st century - in all its uncertainty.
We millennials are used to operating on dual planes - maintaining hope yet living in fear of the future. Due to government instability and the threat of climate change, we don’t have the same assurance that our parents did that the empire will survive, that we have a tomorrow to anticipate. Lorde does not pretend that she can predict the future. Her response to living in times of upheaval is not perfectly formed - gone are the clear-cut emotions and lyrics of Melodrama. Instead, she is honest about her coping mechanisms - the sun, the beach and her dog (the focus of the beautiful ode “Big Star”) - potentially not being enough.
The reason that Solar Power does not provide the catharsis which some audience members and critics crave is because Lorde no longer believes that this catharsis exists.
There’s no way out of the existential threats we face - neither pure joy nor total despair will carry us through dire times. Despite critical evaluations to the contrary, either knocking Lorde for her privilege as a “teen millionaire” or depicting her as a naive college girl left reeling after smoking her first joint (takes that range from oddly sexist to just mean-spirited) - Solar Power is a rebuttal of the overconfident pop artist, refuting the idea that music should be prescriptive or that words written by a teenager should be recited like Gospel (sorry to those who have the lyrics to “Ribs” tattooed on their…uh, ribs). A younger artist would never give away how little they know - they would instead wrap themselves in mystique and invite more questions. Yet Lorde fully understands, and expresses, her limitations.
There’s been much written about the fact that Lorde logged off - deleting all her social media, disabling Internet access from her phone. Again, she’s been criticized for her privilege in depicting technology-free beach days, as people with day jobs cannot similarly remove themselves from their smartphones.
Recently, I’ve gotten some clarity on how I feel about the online outrage machine that controls so much of our lives - the everyday trending topics that dominate the news cycle (which we’re all expected to have an opinion on). I realized how much indignation fuels the bottom lines of companies on both sides of the political aisle (once you acknowledge that everyone from Facebook to the news networks are profiting off of your strong reactions, it becomes a lot easier to opt out).
Some very-online folks have blasted Lorde for failing to “engage,” as most of our culture now exists on the Internet. However, Lorde understands that engagement on social media is NOT engagement on her terms (whether you’re on Facebook or Instagram, it’s Mark Zuckerberg’s world - we’re just posting in it). Plus, it was only without the Internet that Lorde was able to truly look inward, and be so candid with herself about her shortcomings and what she sees as her crutches.
Lorde’s lack of foresight is a recurring thread on Solar Power
On “Secrets from a Girl (Who's Seen It All),” Lorde speaks directly to her younger self at 15. The title is clearly in jest, as Lorde is still only 24 and her education is ongoing. However, she still writes of the gap between her more at-ease 24-year-old self and the 15-year-old “Royals” singer who penned more gothic tunes. Back when she was younger, Lorde’s emotions were all in single hues - big and solid (hence their universality). Now, her feelings have more shades - a recognition of a more complex world. In exploring this contrast between her past and present selves, Lorde has learned not to trust that her emotions will last.
Similarly, on “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” Lorde’s feelings change minute-by-minute. Her thoughts are fleeting, as she questions whether the path she set out on after going viral with “Royals” was the correct one. Then she asks herself if those feelings of regret for her stardom are true, or if she is just “stoned at the nail salon again?”
Some of the best songs on the album are similarly sprawling, lithely dancing between Lorde’s thoughts rather than focusing on a single idea. The album’s finale “Oceanic Feeling” is a stream-of-consciousness track that feels similar to Frank Ocean’s coda “Futura Free” on Blonde (Blonde and Solar Power are similar in that they are best taken as experiences, free of big, splashy hits). “Oceanic” finds Lorde looking backward to before she was born (to her father jumping off the same cliff in New Zealand as a boy) as well as toward her possible future (of having a daughter, who may share either her waist or her widow’s peak). The song captures the immediacy of being in nature (the waves and the cicadas), as well as the act of being totally present in your thoughts. Lorde sings, “I just had to breathe / And tune in” - an allusion to meditation if I’ve ever heard one.
It’s here that Solar Power truly reveals itself as a concept album, similar to Melodrama. Rather than following a woman processing her break-up, Solar Power is about living in Lorde’s head in real time on a day at the beach. Her thoughts are going to drift - past and future are going to collide. She’s going to feel lofty and sentimental one minute (the cult leader of the “Solar Power” video), then make fun of her self-care techniques the next (putting on a blonde wig for “Mood Ring”). Everything is temporary. But occasionally, as on “Oceanic Feeling,” she feels totally present.
Interestingly, Solar Power forecasts Lorde’s desire to fade away from pop stardom rather than making a play at reaching another echelon.
On the last line of the album, Lorde sings, “I know you'll show me how, I'll know when it's time / To take off my robes and step into the choir.” This suggests that her intention to prioritize her personal wellbeing over her fame and celebrity is not just lip service. This is similar to the views she’s expressed in interviews - indicating that she’s actively trying to ratchet down her celebrity status. She’s playing smaller venues for her Solar Power tour - amphitheaters and concert halls rather than arenas. “I would much rather have a room with 5,000 people in it who know every word to every song and are passionate about me as an institution—than have 18,000 people who heard two songs on the radio and liked them,” she told the Wall Street Journal. However, Lorde extrapolating herself from the industry is more complicated than just a stated goal.
On “California,” Lorde sings “Don't want that California love” - a pointed response to 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s hit song. She argues something that everyone from Carly Rae Jepsen (the song “L.A. Hallucinations” from E•MO•TION) to every version of A Star is Born have reiterated - that Hollywood is artificial and can lead an artist astray. Yet at the same time, the song “California” (and the whole album) are indebted to ‘70s Laurel Canyon vibes. Lorde also sings of alcohol like it’s a madeleine cookie transporting her back to the Grammy Awards - “But every time I smell tequila / The garden grows up in my mind again.” Despite what Lorde says about rejecting California, she is still trapped by what she’s inherited from the West Coast.
Looking at Lorde’s repudiation of glitz and glamour in context, she again contradicts herself. Despite her wish to walk away, she is still bound to the industry’s machine. She has appeared on everything from "Hot Ones” to Seth Meyers to Vogue’s “73 Questions” because she hates press tours but “believes in the album” as she told the NY Times.
Lorde’s legacy is always going to trail her - she would always stand out as an incandescent part of the crowd, even if she did take off her “robes.” She would still have the fans whose lives she has affected with her lyrics, the artists whose careers she’s partly responsible for. Again, she’s wishing for something that will never come true.
But isn’t that what “pop music” is - a wish that will never come true? A hope, a feeling, a dream? Is it so wrong for Lorde to crave the same escapism that she provides her fans?
Is it so wrong for her to take her feet off the ground, and encourage her fans to float with her? To forget their troubles and leave the Earth?
…Even if it’s for a minute, before the feeling is gone again?
You can stream Solar Power on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever you download music
Other Stray Thoughts
My prediction: 2022 will be the year of Channing Tatum. A full decade after his star-making 2012 (when he starred in three $100 million+ grossers - The Vow, 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike), the once and future Mike Lane is poised to retake the himbo crown. He has his directorial debut (an army vet film called Dog) scheduled for February, followed by his collaboration with rom com royalty Sandy Bullock on The Lost City of D (an action adventure film that sounds an awfully lot like Romancing the Stone). Finally, he’s starring in Zoë Kravitz’s directorial debut, the sure-to-be-retitled P Island. That led to Kravitz and Tatum’s possible coupledom, and the simply iconic photo of Kravitz riding on the back of Chan’s bike as he cycled down the streets of Manhattan. All I can say is Bennifer better watch their backs.
“David Bowie saw Lorde as 'the future of music'.“ The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/22/david-bowie-lorde-future-of-music
Mamo, Heran, “Olivia Rodrigo Can't Believe Her 'Idols' Taylor Swift & Lorde Have 'Become My Peers So Quickly'.“ Billboard, https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/9533931/olivia-rodrigo-talks-idols-turned-peers-taylor-swift-lorde-phoebe-bridgers
Carr, Debbie, “Lorde thought ‘Solar Power’ was going to be “this big acid record.” NME, https://www.nme.com/news/music/lorde-thought-solar-power-was-going-to-be-this-big-acid-record-3014253
Shah, Neil, “Lorde Doesn’t Want to Be Pop Royalty Anymore.” The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/lorde-doesnt-want-to-be-pop-royalty-anymore-11629118800
Coscarelli, Joe, “Lorde’s Work Here Is Done. Now, She Vibes.” The NY Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/12/arts/music/lorde-solar-power.html