An album can be utterly disappointing, and still be excellent. This is the paradoxical feat that Solar Power, Lorde’s third, hotly-anticipated album has executed. And part of the problem lies within that hot anticipation, more than it does in what the artist herself has delivered. Disappointing early singles like the peppy, toothless title track and Lana Del Rey-cosplay “Stoned At The Nail Salon” alerted fans to an obvious sea change, and a third single, “Mood Ring,” which tried and seemingly failed to parody nü-wellness culture initially landed on my ears as the biggest bummer of all. Within the context of the album as a whole, though, all three have gained at least a sense of place.
Though this New Zealand “teen millionaire” has assuredly divorced herself from the pop star sound and accoutrement that used to fit like a glove, the weight of who she was hangs over the record like a cloud. “If you’re looking for a savior, that’s not me,” she sings on “The Path,” a direct juxtaposition to her clunky title track assertion, “I’m kind of like a prettier Jesus.” Solar Power isn’t a record about coming back to reality after several years spent hiding out in the bush — it’s a record about how hiding out in the bush is Lorde’s reality now, and the celebrity stuff is what she’s closing the book on. In that sense, it doesn’t deliver what fans thought it would, but it also offers a more intimate portrait of Lorde than any set of bangers could’ve. A Laurel Canyon-inspired portrait of life in New Zealand isn’t going to qualify as gospel for most American listeners, but after some getting used to, it’s an unexpectedly beautiful left turn.
From the woozy album opener “The Path” all the way through the lush “Fallen Fruit” and trippy, barely-minute-plus “Leader Of A New Regime,” Lorde traces a tongue-in-cheek argument for remove from society, justifying her decision to look for meaning elsewhere in real life disappointments. It’s the logical decision of someone who is rich enough to be fully offline for years at a time, but certainly not a concept album that’s one that’s going to resonate with her extremely-online, college-loan-debt-laden fans. At least these three, and the other standout, “California,” offer enough atmosphere to anchor “Mood Ring” in the breezy, sardonic climate it needed to feel funny.
We always knew she was going to go full Kate Bush — if early covers of “Running Up That Hill” didn’t alert you, her split with Max Martin over “Green Light” phrasing should’ve — we just didn’t know it would be so soon. Goodbye to all that, and hello Lorde’s 24-going-on-25 epiphany: Being famous isn’t worth the hassle. This seems like the healthiest conclusion a pop star has come to in years, but again, it isn’t necessarily relatable en masse. The sense of resignation that permeates the album is perhaps unexpected for a songwriter as young as Lorde, but considering how much life she lived in the first two decades of her life — again, typified in “California” — it feels earned. Since that song essentially takes “Royals” and applies the same dismissal to the very worst of LA celebrity culture, it might be hard for the entire rest of the state to stomach the rather stereotypical generalization, except for when remembering Lorde’s respect for hip-hop. I’ll take it as a subtle nod to Tupac and Dre et al. and not the lowkey insult it can sound like upon a less generous listen — especially since the entire sound of the album is inspired by and owed to the state this song sorta maligns.
When it hits, the record hits, sun on skin. But when the songwriting stumbles, which is almost solely on a lyrical level, the missteps are egregious, and too jarring to ignore. “Stoned At The Nail Salon,” a deeply beautiful song, feels lifted wholecloth from Lana’s entire shtick, and the fan-discovered melodic overlap with “Wild At Heart” off Chemtrails doesn’t help the cause. On the other end of the spectrum “Secrets From A Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” could’ve almost passed as a fine ’90s throwback tune, except for the spoken word outro from Robyn that is truly awful. Fashionable representatives from Lorde’s old Rookie set might be tempted to archly quote Jenny Holzer’s “abuse of power comes as no surprise” over this misuse of the Swedish icon, but it’s also indicative of what can happen when an artist has no one around them willing to be brutally honest.
Contrary to what the baseless pontifications from Antonoff armchair critics assert, Jack doesn’t seem to wield that kind of editing pen or veto power in his collaborative pop star relationships. Quite the opposite, he doesn’t seem to offer constructive criticism when maybe he should. So just as I won’t credit Antonoff for the sparkling pathos of the actually brilliant “Big Star,” I can’t blame him for the album missteps, either. “The Man With The Axe” and “Dominoes” prove that Paul Simon’s influence is harder to escape on a lighthearted-yet-heavy songwriters album than it appears to be, and the latter’s strangely Swiftian lyric reference (“Out Of The Woods”) feels more like an oversight than an allusion. But whether reference or homage, similarity to Taylor and Lana feels inevitable for Lorde, whose past approach to the world of pop seemed to rest gently between the two.
If Lorde failed to live up to the standards this pair set on this latest album, it’s because they’ve only been setting the lyrical bar higher all throughout her hiatus, and again, that’s the primary area where Solar Power lags. Whatever is lacking in lyrics is almost made up for in her newly-realized vocal control, which is so much more intricate here, improved by leaps and bounds. “I can make anything real,” she boasts on the Fleet Foxes-indebted “Oceanic Feeling” (“Grown Ocean,” “Sunblind”) a blazing six-minute epic that feels like it could’ve been the album opener for a completely different version of Solar Power. On this song most off all, the daylight is worth chasing, and ironically, most indicative of the state I know and love.
Solar Power is out now via. Get it here.