A lot can change in four years, even without a pandemic thrown into the middle of it. The escalating effects of climate change (fires, rising oceans, unhealthy air quality, doomsday-level hurricanes and earthquakes and fire-tornadoes), wars over natural resources, general brutality and the death of loved ones have taken a toll on Lorde. The change is reflected on Solar Power—both in lyrics and overall musical tone—even if the New Zealand artist sometimes plays it off as sarcasm.
The new album isn’t a celebration of alternative energy, so much as it is about dancing through the end of the world, middle finger raised high at the previous generations that have screwed it all up. In the midst of it, Lorde also grieves for the death of her pup, Pearl, who was as much her family as anyone on two feet. Musically, this album is no Melodrama or Pure Heroine. The husky-voiced singer has before relied on a near-spoken singing style, but her voice is more hushed and somber. Billie Eilish is an apt comparison here.
The songs themselves seem to breezily float along, halfway between sleep and waking. There’s no “Royals,” “Ribs” or “Green Light.” The title track is as close as you get to a banger on Solar Power. The album’s use of electronic percussion doesn’t become notable until the last couple of tracks, but they’re not songs for dancing, as evidenced by the songs’ themes. However, the album could have benefited from some tempo changes here and there.
“And we will walk together/ … Through the halls of splendour where the apple trees all grew/ You’ll leave us dancing on the fallen fruit,” Lorde sings on “Fallen Fruit,” which she’s described as being about her rage at the generations who’ve propelled climate to catastrophic levels. “But how can I love what I know I am gonna lose?”
“Fallen Fruit” is sonically representative of most of the album, which was produced by Jack Antonoff. Lorde sings in a hushed, brooding way over a muted guitar-led melody; light, ominous bass and adornment by a nodding electric guitar and synths. Her voice intermingles with other women (or layered with her own), creating a ’60s Laurel Canyon folk vibe.
Later in the album, on the 90-second “Leader of the New Regime” (one of two songs cowritten with Malay), she fantasizes about escaping to her safe space and away from the crumbling, untenable world—one she’s described as unspoiled by other people. This place also gets a mention on “Fallen Fruit,” even as it remains unnamed. Over the runtime, she also lists off what she’d bring with her to her desert island: “Wearing SPF 3000 for the ultraviolet rays/ Made it to the island on the last of the outbound planes/ Got a trunkful of Simone and Céline and of course my magazines/ I’m gonna live out my days.”
Who here watches the news regularly and hasn’t considered what to pack in a survival kit?
The title track, which preceded the album, keeps things breezy and light. Featuring drummer Matt Chamberlain (Pearl Jam, many others), the acoustic-guitar-driven tune is as close to “Green Light” as Solar Power gets (but that’s not very close). Lorde has said she wanted to write a fun summer song. “My cheeks in high colour, overripe peaches/ No shirt, no shoes, only my features/ My boy behind me, he’s taking pictures,” she sings. It’s the album’s lone moment of over happiness. It’s the second song on the album, however, and that carefree attitude is short-lived.
On several songs, Lorde looks back on significant moments of her music career, and sometimes questions herself and her identity. On album opener “The Path,” she writes about stressing over being the person that her fans look up to for guidance. She addresses her meteoric success (“Teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash”), her anxiety (“Won’t take the call if it’s the label or the radio”) and not fitting in (“Arm in a cast at the museum gala/ Fork in my purse to take home to my mother”).
In the end, she subscribes to the Charles Barkley school of not being a role model.
“Now 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,” she sings. “‘Cause we are all broken and sad; where are the dreams that we had? … Let’s hope the sun will show us the path.” The sun, a representative of the natural world, becomes the “path” that guides this story.
Lorde tells a related story on “California,” about her first trip to Los Angeles and wondering whether a music career was really for her. It’s something she questioned until Grammy presenter Carole King called her name for Song of the Year. And on the very literal “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” she wonders how to balance her work and personal lives. Here she sings of needing to unwind from the action-packed pace of tour life with a considerably more low-key activity. Antonoff plays the sweet guitar melody on this song, but an even bigger nugget is the harmonizing guest stars: Phoebe Bridgers, Clairo, Marlon Williams and James Milne of Lawrence Arabia.
On two songs, Lorde grieves for her late pup. “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” is written from the perspective of Lorde imparting wisdom to her younger self on matters of growth and young womanhood. “‘Member what you thought was grief before you got the call?” she asks herself. Lorde isn’t the only one imparting lessons, though. The last verse is delivered in spoken-word by Robyn, who’s playing a flight attendant: “Welcome to Sadness/ The temperature is unbearable until you face it/ … Your emotional baggage can be picked up at Carousel #2/ Please be careful so that it doesn’t fall onto someone you love…”
Then there’s “Big Star,” which could be a sleeper favorite for many. Lorde wrote the song, which evokes The Beatles’ “In My Life,” as a love letter to Pearl the pup, who she didn’t yet know was sick. Other highlights include penultimate cut “Mood Ring.” This record doesn’t offer up much in terms of club jams, but this song at least has a mood-boosting drumbeat and faster pace. The song is a satirical comparison of alternative pseudo-wellness fads (crystals, sage burning and the like) between the ’60s and again now—Gwyneth Paltrow, Lorde is looking right at your vagina-flavored candle. For an added touch, Antonoff throws in some Eastern-influenced sitar noodling.
The album concludes with “Oceanic Feeling,” which Lorde wrote by herself (as she did the opener) and brings the album to a full-circle end. The song is a summarization of all her concerns, fears and questions. She wishes the best for her father and brother, and wonders what her own future will look like, wondering which of her traits her daughter may share. All this pondering and worrying, but Lorde doesn’t have her answers.
“O, was enlightenment found? No, but I’m trying/ Taking it one year at a time,” she concludes.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.