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'Solar Power' is Lorde’s radiant, defiant reinvention

In a live stream preceding the premiere of the second promotional single off her new album “Solar Power,” Lorde answered the question on everyone’s mind: “Why do you take such a long break from music [between albums]?” She said simply, “Because I have things to do,” before clarifying — “Because I need to really miss it when I come back.” 

That longing was reciprocated by Lorde fans, who have waited four years since the release of Lorde’s critically acclaimed sophomore album “Melodrama” for new music from the 24-year-old musician. The waiting game was also a guessing game: Lorde wiped her all social media accounts — instead communicating directly with fans through infrequent email newsletters — and literally went off the grid when she ventured to Antarctica in February 2019 to learn about the climate crisis firsthand. In November 2019, she informed fans that she “[needed] some time to see the good again” after the devastating loss of her dog, and up until the leak of the controversial “Solar Power” album artwork in June, there was no confirmation of new Lorde music in 2021. While the peachy cover art doesn’t capture all aspects of the complex album, it certainly generated buzz and signalled a temporal and contextual shift from the “holy sick divine nights” of “Melodrama.” As Lorde, whose real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor, stated in an interview with The Irish Times, she “[relishes] the reinvention.”

The album’s title track opens with a scratchy, pulsing acoustic guitar rhythm followed by Lorde’s unmistakable voice, a combination neither fans nor Lorde herself could have foreseen even a few years ago (in a recent interview with The Guardian, she joked that she “would have rather died than have an acoustic guitar” on her triple platinum debut album, “Pure Heroine”). She sings, quite literally, about how she hates the winter — not exactly the lyrics fans were expecting from her after she hinted that the album was inspired by her 2019 trip to Antarctica. This time, however, there’s not much to read into (the music video is another story… let’s just say it’s more “Midsommar” than “Watermelon Sugar”). In contrast to the sentimental, perceptive lyrics in her previous albums that propelled her to fame, she serves cheeky lines like “can you reach me? No, you can’t” and “I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus.” The song gradually builds, with wavy undercurrents and echoes recalling secret beach caves, as well as beautiful mermaid-like background vocals contributed by Clairo and Phoebe Bridgers. Drums precede the explosive outro, a fanfare of bubbly xylophones, celebratory trumpets, and even New Zealand cicadas. Does “Solar Power” sound like something that only Lorde could have made, like “Royals” or the cult classic “Ribs”? Not really — the song radiates the psychedelic dance-rock vibe spearheaded by Primal Scream and directly references one of its sonic parallels, Robbie Williams’ “Rock DJ,” in the line “can I kick it? Yeah, I can” (originated by A Tribe Called Quest). But in 2021, Lorde is the only artist doing what she’s doing and doing it so well: “Solar Power” soared to the top of the charts despite having no extended social media rollout, definitively ending the four-year drought since “Melodrama” and lifting Lorde to the forefront of the pop industry once again. 

On "Stoned at the Nail Salon", Lorde turns inward and reflects on growing older (and not in the angsty teen sense anymore), settling down, and questioning if she has made the right decisions in life — all at the ripe age of 24, a little less than a decade since she launched to fame as a precocious teenager. Evoking imagery from Joni Mitchell’s "The Circle Game," Lorde sings “I’d ride and I’d ride on the carousel / ‘round and ‘round forever if I could / but it’s time to cool it down / whatever that means,” underscoring her emotional maturity and newfound level-headedness — a striking contrast from the hot-blooded, feverish passion that characterizes “Melodrama.” In an email newsletter to fans that accompanied the single’s release, Lorde admitted feeling insecure after the conclusion of the “Melodrama” tour in 2018 that she wasn’t a “titan of industry [anymore], but someone who just… cooked and walked the dog and gardened.” Although she loved her new domestic lifestyle, she couldn’t help feeling that she was missing something or that she wasn’t satisfying the part of her that could “tear apart a festival stage or be in seven countries in seven days.” Ultimately, the folk ballad is a reconciliation of those two parts of her and a reassuring rumination on the circularity of life, fading beauty, and the simple pleasures of domesticity. 

One of the most creative endeavors on the album, "Mood Ring" is Lorde’s self-described attempt to “[distill] some [of her] thoughts on wellness culture and the search for spiritual meaning in our modern world into a 3-minute pop song.” The result is a sparkly, upbeat track reminiscent of the female icons of early 2000s bubblegum pop, including Nelly Furtado, Natalie Imbruglia, and Natasha Bedingfield. The lyrics, however, aren’t as digestible as those of its sonic forebears (nor are they meant to be) — she simultaneously satirizes and empathizes with people (most often white women) who indulge in expensive rituals like sage-burning, crystal-cleansing, and exotic eastern retreats to find “what they need,” acts of cultural appropriation aesthetically wrapped in the guise of self-optimization. So while you probably won’t be singing the lyrics “Ladies, begin your sun salutations / Transcendental in your meditations” at the top of your lungs with the windows down in your friend’s car, living out your early 2000s fantasy, "Mood Ring" is an artistic success nonetheless (and anyway, Lorde is done chasing radio hits).

Although Lorde has been insistent that "Solar Power" is not her “climate change album,” the album undoubtedly calls attention to the urgency of climate change and raises questions about our future. “Fallen Fruit” fortifies Lorde’s reputation as a musical visionary, as she layers beautiful, dark imagery (“through the halls of splendor where the apple trees all grew / you'll leave us dancing on the fallen fruit”) with cutting lyrics (“How can I love what I know I’m going to lose?”) and haunting production by Jack Antonoff. If you didn’t know which titles corresponded to which tracks, you might have thought that “Fallen Fruit” was titled “Leader of a New Regime” — after all, “Fallen Fruit” signals a return to the collective (“we will walk together / psychedelic garlands in our hair”) and almost sounds like a call to action. However, Lorde is quick to remind everyone that she is a pop star, not a climate activist with all the answers: on “Leader of a New Regime,” she earnestly asks “Won't somebody, anybody, be the leader of a new regime?” and on “The Path,” she warns “Now if you're looking for a savior, well, that's not me.” 

What Lorde can provide for her audience is a contagious, eye-opening reverence for pop music and the natural world. On “California,” Lorde reflects on her magical, dizzying rise to fame after winning two Grammys for “Royals” in 2014, but she ultimately says “goodbye to all the bottles, all the models / bye to the kids in the lines for the new Supreme” and returns to her to hometown in New Zealand to seek pleasure from nature. The song’s subdued hip hop beat — a subtle nod to 2Pac’s “California Love” — paired with Lorde’s dreamy, lilting voice is pure pop alchemy. Another irresistibly catchy tune is “Dominoes,” which takes jabs at a cocaine-turned-marijuana New Age dude who tries to “[outrun] his blues” by taking up yoga and gardening, continuing the thematic thread from “Mood Ring.” It is the slower songs in the second half of the album that feature the most moving lyrics, though: on “The Man with the Axe,” she expresses her tender love for the man who “felled [her] clean as a pine,” and on “Big Star” she accepts that “evеry perfect summer's gotta take its flight” (harking back to the “perfect summer” from “Liability”) while sentimentally reminiscing about her late dog, Pearl. 

The album culminates in “Oceanic Feeling,” a divine six-minute track that begins with a warm keyboard drone and the faint buzz of cicadas, before Lorde’s clear-headed voice breaks through. The song pushes and pulls (“[breathes] out” and “[tunes] in”) rather than building to a singular climax, but the persistent beat and kinetic lyrics (“I see your silver chain levitate / when you're kickflipping”) drive the song forward. In contrast to “Melodrama,” where she calls herself “[her] mother’s child,” she now contemplates having children of her own, wondering, “If I have a daughter / will she have my waist / or my widow’s peak? / My dreamer’s disposition or my wicked streak?” Now, her signature cherry-black lipstick from her “Pure Heroine” days is “gathering dust in a drawer,” replaced by a newfound power derived from the natural world — but she knows better than to say she has reached enlightenment. Instead, she offers a closing message that is less didactic and more opaque: “I'll know when it's time / To take off my robes and step into the choir.” Take it as you will, but take it.

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