When Lorde released her first new song in four years, alongside it’s corresponding music video, the initial collective response seemed to be “huh?”; the blissed-out, sun-kissed radiance of ‘Solar Power’ was about as far as one could get from the darkness of her two previous releases. Soon after it’s release, a meme quickly went viral placing the audio of an ad for the pharmaceutical drug Humira over the Midsommar-esque music video. The meme was undoubtedly made firmly with it’s creator’s tongue in their cheek, but it echoed a larger criticism of Lorde’s new musical direction; that it was generic, uninspired and vacuously upbeat.
For all the criticism levelled at the divisive title-track, upon listening to the entirety of Lorde’s third studio album, it becomes clear why it was given lead-single status; while seemingly not much at first, the Primal Scream and George Michael inspired chorus is an undeniable earworm and, the song’s peppiness makes it stand out from the album’s other eleven tracks. Contrastingly, follow-up single, the more immediately gripping ‘Stoned At The Nail Salon’ fades of significance with further listens.
More so than ‘Melodrama’, and *far* more than her debut ‘Pure Heroine’, ‘Solar Power’ (the album) prioritises vibes over just about everything else; aiming to create a folk-pop Summer anthem. The minimalism and understated nature of folk-pop, however, is almost uniquely unsuited to Lorde’s artistic strengths. Traditionally, what’s set Lorde apart from her contemporaries is the urgency and innovation of her work; ‘Pure Heroine’, and it’s breakout hit ‘Royals’, served as much-needed counters to the glamour and excess of the pop music world, meanwhile ‘Melodrama’, with it’s maximal production choices and darkly-captivating lyrics (“We’ll end up painted on the road, red and chrome / All the broken glass sparkling”) was similarly captivating and in-your-face.
While ‘Melodrama’ re-created the intensity of youth; partying, first loves and first break-ups, the harsh reality of ‘live fast, die young’, ‘Solar Power’ attempts to channel the care free breeze of Summer through Joni Mitchell-inspired folk. But while Mitchell was content to let little more than her lilting voice and understated production guide her songs, Lorde can’t help herself from falling into the trap of over-production; stripping the songs of their desired emotional impact in the process.
The title track from ‘Solar Power’ was so hated by some fans that it reignited the discussion about whether Jack Antonoff’s production were becoming stale. But the truth is that within the last two years, Antonoff has produced three separate albums that all try to do what Lorde is trying to do here but better; ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ does a better job at creating folkly transcendence, St Vincent’s ‘Daddy Home’ is far more convincing in it’s attempts at psychedelia, while Clairo’s ‘Sling’ channels it’s Joni Mitchell influence more effectively than Lorde does here.
After breaking onto the scene as a teenager, critics complained about the young-Lorde’s sense of superiority; as she cast her judgemental eye on how the other-half lived. At least then her judgment came from an understandable, and even justified, place; a teenager from a relatively ordinary background looking down on the opulence and luxury that permeated pop culture. This time, however, it is Lorde speaking from a place of privilege and as a result, her political and societal musings ring hollow. If ‘Solar Power’s’ title track is any indication, Lorde has spent the years since ‘Melodrama’ cut off from much of the rest of the world – especially technology. It’s a luxury Lorde has that few others do in the technology age, especially in a pandemic where Zoom and email became ever-more essential to most workplaces. This sense of disconnect radiates throughout ‘Solar Power’; it aims for mysticism and mystery, but ultimately delivers distance. Despite this, lyricism remains the best part of ‘Solar Power’, but Lorde stops her lyrics from reaching their pull potential. Take ‘Stoned at The Nail Salon’, it contains some great, relatable lines around family and fading youth, but it’s central lyrical motif, of being, well, stoned at the nail salon, falls flat. ‘Mood Ring’ contains some clever satirical lines mocking the hollowness and hidden sadness behind wellness culture, but does so without any of the vocal bite (seen aplenty in previous releases) required to signal irony.
Given how disconnected from the zeitgeist Lorde proclaims to be, it’s unclear how much she’ll care about the critical response to her third studio album, but she must surely be taken aback by how negative so much of it has been: ‘Solar Power’ was branded “disappointing, detached and sun bleached of melody” by the Independent and was deemed a “musical resignation letter” by the Evening Standard (both outlets gave the album two star reviews). It’s hard to think of an artist who has gone straight from an album as hugely acclaimed as ‘Melodrama’ to one as panned as ‘Solar Power’. Indeed, while ‘Melodrama’ was a hugely exciting project filled with promise, ‘Solar Power’ presents some pretty stark questions about Lorde’s musical future.
There was a lot riding on ‘Melodrama’s’ success; it came four years after Lorde’s full length debut and in the between Lorde had largely been riding off the success of one big hit. To ensure her longevity as an important artist, ‘Melodrama’ had to either be a big commercial success or a big critical one; and sure enough it was the latter. ‘Melodrama’s’ critical standing has only grown greater in the years since it’s release and, as a result, it had been largely assumed ever since that Lorde would remain a highly regarded and vitally important artist for decades to come. But ‘Solar Power’, while by no means an awful album, is so many things that Lorde’s music never was – and in fact, actively railed against – forgettable, lacking personality and even dull in parts – that it raises some serious questions about whether Lorde’s reputation can remain in tact in it’s aftermath; especially if she waits another four years or more to follow ‘Solar Power’ up. Again, the problem isn’t so much that ‘Solar Power’ is actively bad, so much as that it strips Lorde’s music of everything that made it essential and interesting to begin with. ‘Melodrama’ was filled with left-field choices – lyrics, production and vocals wise – that showcased an artist deeply dedicated to her art, but the new Lorde – who said album cycles are more a distraction to her life than a central part of them – seems resigned and ‘Solar Power’ almost sounds as if it was created begrudgingly; out of a sense of obligation rather than from a place of genuine inspiration. Lorde, it seems, has spent most of the last four years chilling on the beach, out of reach from the rest of the world, and while this has given her some well-earned inner peace, it has also created a deep sense of disconnection between her and the listener.
Best Tracks: ‘Solar Power’, ‘Stoned At The Nail Salon’, ‘The Path’, ‘Mood Ring’, ‘Big Star’
Worst Track: ‘Leader of a New Regime’