Album Review: Lorde - Solar Power
There is this demand, I think, that the audience places on the artist—those who write, or who make music, for example—to always be creating, and to rarely, if ever, cease to produce something. And when that next “thing” is produced—a book, or a new album, or whatever, the audience then demands it be as good, if not better, than the beloved thing that came before it.
There was a time, I think, when I may have been a part of this audience, and to a small extent, I still and regrettably might be. This notion is something I try to be more aware of though—or at least it is something I keep in mind when I think about how I navigate my feelings about art, and the artists that make it.
An example: I am no longer demanding an artist like D’Angelo release another record—it would be nice if he did, sure, but his complicated legacy lives on through the three he gave us; specifically Voodoo and the long gestating Black Messiah. It is, at the end of the day, okay if he waits another 14 years between albums, opting to spend much of that time in a reclusive silence.
It is, at the end of the day, okay if he never release another album again.
An example: I am certainly no longer demanding a writer like Jonathan Safran Foer generate another book similar in scope and breadth to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. After a decade between novels, he released the sprawling, frustrating Here I Am, and I didn’t care for it at all. But was I disappointed because I had placed expectations onto him that I shouldn’t have? Or was a disappointed because it was a poorly written book?
Or a little bit of both.
Regardless, my intense dislike may have provided me the opportunity to realize in the 11 year interim, I had drifted away from him as a writer, or a literary figure.
If anything, the elapsed time and my opinion of Here I Am made me afraid to go back and revisit Extremely Loud, a book that meant the world to me when I was 22; if I were to read it 16 years after its release, perhaps its faults would be impossible to ignore, and it would buckle under its own ambitions—ambitions that were certainly cloying and manipulative and that was apparently very easy for me to overlook when I originally read it.
It is, at the end of the day, okay that a book like that, or a figure like Foer, meant something to me at a specific time in my life, and it’s okay that I didn’t completely take it with me to where I am now.
All the music you loved at 16—you’ll grow out of…
We, as an audience, place these demands, or impossible expectations, and we ask these things, of artists, but what I have grown to realize is an artist—a writer, a musician, a filmmaker, whoever—they don’t owe us anything more than what they have already given.
And yet, we continue to ask for more.
There is a discourse regarding Solar Power, the recently released third full-length from the New Zealand pop singer Lorde. And if I were maybe a few years younger, and certainly, if I were not so exhausted and depressed literally all the time, I might be more interested, or have a little more enthusiasm about working through that discourse—not to participate in it, but to maybe have a better understanding.
Anecdotally, though, what I can quickly glean is this—Lorde’s audience was anticipating, or perhaps, erroneously expecting, another album similar in sound to her bombastic 2017 effort, Melodrama. That is not what she chose to produce through Solar Power, and people are upset about it.
People have strong opinions about it, and maybe have even stronger opinions about its producer and her collaborator, Jack Antonoff.
And that’s fine—if you are full of youthful exuberance and are not perpetually struggling through day to day life with a debilitating mental illness, first, congratulations; but secondly, and more importantly, by all means, your feelings are subjective yet valid and I hope you are empowered, as you are able, to participate in the discourse on the album.
Lorde, however, doesn’t owe you shit.
The singer and songwriter, born Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, truthfully did not owe her audience a third album, like so many performers, but delivered one anyway—at times, difficult to access, and at times, marvelous, breezy, and very bright—it is not so much an inverse of the dizzying pop soundscape from Melodrama, but it is drastically different in its aesthetic.
And because of that, listeners are unhappy.
Lorde, however, is not your savior.
It’s an easy (and perhaps a bad) joke to make, but it is also an idea she addresses directly, right from rip on Solar Power’s opening track, “The Path,” when she sings, “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….we are all broken and sad.”
Finding fame as a young teenager with the ubiquitous single “Royals” in 2013, then returning a few years later as a critical darling with Melodrama, Yelich-O’Connor has reached the level of success and fame where, in writing songs, she, as Lorde, is the central character—penning lyrics from a highly reflective and staggeringly self-aware place where the fame and success play supporting roles, or are even the antagonists.
As she alludes to in the opening line of “The Path,” Yelich-O’Connor was born in 1996, and to someone like me who is staring down the barrel of 40, it seems slightly premature for someone in their mid-20s to be ruminating so very much on their life thus far—specifically just the last, like, eight or nine years.
But that’s exactly what Solar Power is—a thoughtful journey inward that, even with how insular and seemingly, at face value, how inaccessible it might be, the album still manages to be surprisingly intimate, and still manages to capture, albeit a very complicated one, an inherently human essence.
I was extraordinarily late to the party on Lorde.
I, like most of the population in 2013, was aware of “Royals,” from her debut full-length, Pure Heroine, because it was inescapable at the time, regardless of if you listened to a lot of pop music or not. And at that time1, as difficult as it might be to believe given my pivot over the last few years, I was not someone who was listening, in earnest, to a lot of pop music—to my knowledge, I have not heard any of the other singles off of Pure Heroine, like “Team,” or “Tennis Court.”
Yelich-O’Connor is not making what you could call “indie pop,” but with the release of her sophomore album, Melodrama, she was embraced by an indie audience—bestowed with an 8.8 out of 10 from Pitchfork, with the site also naming the album its fifth favorite record of 2017; Stereogum named it the best record of that year.
More than likely, it was near the end of last year, or at the very beginning of this year, when I heard the song “Supercut,” drifting out of the tiny speaker on my best friend’s phone, filling the air in a back office when we still worked2 together. Behind a partially closed door, I was eating my lunch, but could still hear the rollicking cacophony of the song, surging out into the ether.
“What are you listening to,” I asked her.
“My ‘Liked Songs,’” she responded. “But this is Lorde.”
There is something dizzying about the frenetic energy of a song like “Supercut”—an enormous pop moment on an album built around other enormous pop moments, and there is, as you might have surmised by now, nothing like it at all found on Solar Power. Even the very notion of the “supercut” she is making reference to in that song, itself, is gone—and in its place are slow and simmering memories, and at times, some of them seem like they are risk of fading away.
From start to finish, Solar Power isn’t an album about just one thing—it’s not a breakup album, though there are striking and often surprisingly sensual allusions to a romance that no longer exists that Yelich-O’Connor still yearns for—using the idea of a “golden body” back in her bed as a double entendre that could, possibly, be about a lover but also could be about the “Golden State” on the song “California,” or the much less metaphorical, “Got a memory of waiting in your bed wearing only my earrings,” she muses on “Stoned in The Nail Salon.”
Solar Power isn’t an album about just one thing—a sneering send up of what could only be called “Wellness Culture” is a theme present in a handful of songs, most noticeably in the album’s third single, and one of its strongest moments, “Mood Ring.”
It isn’t an album about just one thing—it’s a personal reflection on the events that brought Yelich-O’Connor to this point in her career and finds her pondering heavily where she might be going next.
Admittedly, for an album as restrained as Solar Power winds up being, it shouldn’t be shocking to discover the pacing can become a little slow, especially when the songs themselves begin to falter—when a song on this album works, it really works. There are also songs that don’t exactly land as successfully as you’d like them to, but they are still very listenable; then, there are moments that simply do not work—Solar Power first begins to show signs of strain toward the end of its first side with “Fallen Fruit,” which is, without a doubt, one of the least interesting tunes of the set.
Outside of the mostly unwarranted discourse on the titular track, the album’s producer and credited co-writer on nearly every song, Jack Antonoff, again, finds himself catching heat for his apparently “boring” or “lifeless” production and arranging.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the album is boring or lifeless, but the production on Solar Power is a night and day difference to the technicolor, electro-infused soundscape Antonoff helmed on Melodrama, and I don’t feel like it is too much of a stretch to call parts of Solar Power a sonic extension, or continuation, of Antonoff’s work with Clairo, on her also recently released album Sling.
But while Sling owes much to the Laurel Canyon sound of the 1970s, and its songs were densely arranged with lush orchestral flourishes and acoustic guitars, Solar Power is, as a whole, a much sparser album in comparison, though there are noticeable similarities—as “Fallen Fruit” unfolds, Antonoff’s guitar playing eventually, and perhaps as anticipated, veers into what I commonly call masturbatory noodling that fails to climax, which is something he mostly manages to refrain from doing elsewhere on the record, though the big, strummy groove of “Dominoes”—one of the songs that finds Yelich-O’Connor having a laugh at the expense of the idea of someone suddenly embracing a “wellness” focused lifestyle just comes off as sounding whimsical, if not silly.
The aforementioned “California,” one of Yelich-O’Connor’s more self-referential and self-aware songs on Solar Power, as she allows herself to slide into a very tangible groove with the way she speak/sings the lyrics in the verses, she arrives into the chorus sounding, and perhaps it his simply Antonoff’s association with both artists, but she sounds, briefly, a bit like Lana Del Rey—perhaps it is because she’s singing about the state that Lana often waxes nostalgic about, especially on her Antonoff helmed project, Norman Fucking Rockwell, but perhaps it’s the way she lets her voice gently glide into a breathy, airy, upper register she rarely uses, while the music swoons and swells underneath her.
One of the moderately surprising elements found within moments on Solar Power are the flashes of darkness, or danger, within the lyrics—“It’s strange to see you smoking marijuana,” Yelich-O’Connor sings, deep into the shuffling, bouncy energy created around her on “Dominoes. “You used to do the most cocaine of anyone I’d ever met.”
And it’s not delivered as a throwaway line, but it is delivered with enough of a sense of humor to detract from the starkness—and the more I thought about it, it reminded me slightly of the story behind “Dark But Just A Game,” from Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club—a song inspired by an unsettling industry party, and a phrase uttered by Antonoff in an attempt to ease the palpable tension.
And there is a slight, unnerving edge, or a roving dark shadow that gently traces its fingers across parts of Solar Power. Even in a song that is as bright and rollicking as “Secrets From A Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” is, as the title implies, sudden fame at a young age comes with a specific kind of lifestyle that isn’t always the glamorous or fun facade people perceive it to be. “Dancing with my girls, only having two drinks then leaving,” Yelich-O’Connor begins. “It’s a funny thing—thought you’d never gain self-control. Guess it’s been a while since you last said sorry;’ crying in the dark at your best friend’s parties. You’ve had enough—gotta turn the lights up, go home.”
That unnerving edge, or shadow, is explored elsewhere on the record—as charming and aloof as the title of the album’s second single is, “Stoned at The Nail Salon,” is a surprisingly poignant, and somewhat unrelenting back and forth of thoughts—some of them, yes, the kind of thoughts one might have when they are stoned and their mind begins to wander, but there is an urgency and a little bit of a panic that sets in at times that creates an impressive, subtle contrast. “I love this life that I have…but I wonder sometimes what I’m missing,” she muses in the first verse, before sitting with her discomfort in each chorus—“All the beautiful girls, they will fade like roses,” and “All the music you loved at 16—you’ll grow out of,” before playing it all off as best she can.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m just stoned at the nail salon.”
In an annotation on Genius for the pensive, “The Man With The Axe,” which opens the album’s second half, Yelich-O’Connor describes the sound as “The Cocteau Twins with the color bleached out.” I’m uncertain if I see it, but it is another sparsely arranged and very pensive track—shifting between a bleak, uncertain outlook on her career (“I thought I was a genius, but now I’m 22 and it’s starting to feel like all I know how to do is put on a suit, and take it away”) juxtaposed with fragmented imagery from her relationship with Justin Warren, a promotions director with Universal Music New Zealand, which at times seems sweet or at least thoughtful, but other times the dark shadow grazes the song—“I should have known when your favorite record was the same as my father’s, you’d take me down.”
It has become a part of the mythology surrounding the album—if there is one, I guess—or at least part of the compelling backstory that went into the process of creating Solar Power, but in 2019, long before Lorde was on my radar as an artist that I’d be writing a 2,600+ word review about, let alone listening to in earnest, she sent a message out to her fans explaining there would be a delay in her completing a third full-length.
Solar Power’s most somber track, “Big Star,” addresses that—it’s dedicated to her dog, Pearl, who passed away in November of 2019. “Grief is a really transformative force,” Yelich-O’Connor explained in an interview with The Guardian while easing her way into the interview cycle for this album. “I’d never experienced it fully like that, and it makes you question everything. It overturns a lot.”
“Big Star,” smartly, is dressed up with enough ambiguity that it could be about anyone, and it steers clear of becoming too saccharine in its sentiment, and instead, is written through the use of thoughtful, longing observations. “I’m a cheater, I lie, and I’m shy, but you like to say hello to total strangers,” Yelich-O’Connor sings in the first verse. “I toss up if it’s worth it now every time I get on a plane,” in the second verse. “I’ve got so much to tell you, and not enough time to do it in.”
Produced with her vocals pushed up to the front of the mix with a slight effect thrown on to give it the hint of reverb, with a muted, gently strummed electric guitar underneath her, the gravity of the song “Big Star” really hits, and really resonates, in lines like, “But every perfect summer’s got to take its flight—I’ll still watch you run through the winter light,” and palpable grief as the song comes to an end—“You’re a big star—wanna take your picture until I die.”
Don’t you think the early 2000s seem so far away?
That’s a question asked on “Mood Ring,” and it’s an interesting question to unpack—there are a lot of layers, and as a listener, you have to make a choice of just how many layers you want to work through within just one line in a song.
The layer that requires a little more effort on your part to unpack, depending on how old you are, and how washed you want to feel—in my case, do I want to feel even more washed than I already do most days—is the very notion of time, and perhaps facing your own relationship with it, and the distance that continues to grow between portions of your life.
Do I think the early 2000s seem so far away? Yes and no—and there is often a give and take between the two feelings, as this year, not only I have been doing my usual ruminating on seminal albums, or just simply important and popular songs3, from my life that are celebrating milestone anniversaries, but I have been thinking about how I both graduated from high school 20 years ago, and then a few months after that, began my first year in college.
Do I think the early 2000s seem so far away? That is probably a question best responded to separately, and not shoehorned into the final third of what, at one time, was a review of the new Lorde album.
Ella Yelich-O’Connor was four or five years old in the “early 2000s,” and there is a chance that the early portion of that decade is more than just “so far away” to her, and are just early, hazy memories from her childhood. The implication is that things were, perhaps, more innocent, or at least exponentially less chaotic than they are now (especially within the last 18 months) and so the yearning within that lyric is, in fact, a yearning for a feeling from a time that is now long gone.
The layer to the lyric that is the easiest to unpack is that there are a handful of songs on Solar Power that have an undeniable late 1990s, early 2000s’ pop music vibe—acoustic instrumentation, uptempo, bright and shimmering in their affect. Yelich-O’Connor slides into this kind of energy near the end of “The Path,” once the song really takes off, which is a trick she manages to pull off as second time almost immediately after on “Solar Power.”
And it’s not a sound that I think you really hear much anymore in “pop music,” something akin to what you may catch on VH-1, or an adult contemporary radio station, like “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia, or Michelle Branch’s early singles, “Everywhere” and “All You Wanted,” and it’s a sound that Yelich-O’Connor deploys most successfully on “Secrets From A Girl (Who’s Seen it All),” though the spoken word piece from Swedish pop icon Robyn will more than likely always leave an enormous cringe on my face, and on “Mood Ring.”
Taking shots at the idea of “wellness culture” might seem like an unlikely target for a pop song, but it’s her target nevertheless, and though the infectiousness with which the chorus is written, and its sneering, satirical lyrics, she manages to make the song work. While the second verse is the most direct, “I’m tryna get well from the inside—plants and celebrity news, all the vitamins I consume,” Yelich-O’Connor sings breezily, before continuing, “Let’s fly somewhere eastern–they’ll have what I need,” there are parts within the first verse that are slightly more accessible—“Can’t seem to fix my mood—today it’s as dark as my roots if I ever let them grow out.”
Equally as direct as the song’s scathing second verse is the chorus—“I can’t feel a thing; I keep looking at my mood ring—tell me how I’m feeling…,” and maybe it’s because the opening lines about a dark mood unable to be fixed caught my attention, but when this chorus comes sliding in—and for an album as restrained as Solar Power is overall, this is probably one of the most “enormous” songs included, and when I hear “I can’t feel a thing,” I respond with, “Same.”
I don’t have a problem with how close the placement of the microphones for the acoustic guitars on “Solar Power.”
There is a sprawling discourse about this album, as a whole, as well as the album’s titular single—breezy and relaxed, it’s inherently a “feel good” kind of tune, but there is a demand placed on an artist like Lorde, especially after four years between Melodrama and now. And the demand, from what have come to understand as best as I am able is that the first single, announcing Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s return should have been an absolute banger.
“Solar Power,” as a song, is not exactly what I would classify as a banger, and I would be hard pressed to identify a banger on the album itself.
So it might, as a song, feel good and seem breezy and relaxed, and even might spiral into that late 90s or early 2000s kind of sound when it finally takes off—albeit, a “take off” that is also an exercise in brevity and restraint4, but it’s not the song listeners were erroneously expecting.
And yes, it is one thing to be a little disappointed at first (or still be disappointed two months after its release), or to need a little time for it to grown on you, or ease your way into it more and realize that it is a perfectly fine pop song (the conclusion I came to within about a week of its release back in June), but it’s another thing to try and force it to be something that it is not, and is not intended to be, which is the “song of the summer.”
I am uncertain how the zeitgeist goes about selecting a “song of the summer” each year, or if each year even warrants one song to unite us all through the summer months. Personally, for a number of years, I have been able to identify a specific tune as my “summertime jam,” regardless of what the population is listening to—even last year, when the idea of enjoying yourself during the summer months was more or less impossible.
There is a sprawling discourse about this song, and how it is similar to at least two other songs—“Freedom ’90” by George Michael and “Movin’ on Up” by Primal Scream, and sure, there are sonic similarities or structural familiarities, but I think that in 2021, that might just be pop music, whether it is intentional inspiration or interpolation, or is an unintentional coincidence.
There is a sprawling discourse about this song, and in not one but two instances, I have had the displeasure of listening to one of the hosts of the podcast Switched On Pop5 complaining about the production of the acoustic guitars on “Solar Power,” alleging that the microphones are placed entirely too close to the instruments. Of all the things to take issue with on “Solar Power” as a song, or with the album as a whole, this is a trifling matter, and after sitting with the song, and the album, in different listening arrangements, I would disagree—the close placement of the microphones aren’t a problem for me, but rather, they give the song a real sense of intimacy. Antonoff’s production on Solar Power, as well as his more or less sparse arrangements, whether you love them or not, make the album seem close and quiet, which adds to the poignancy and thoughtfulness of Yelich-O’Connor’s reflective, ponderous lyrics, but it also, and this is perhaps unintentional, but it really helps to humanize an enormous pop star.
“We are all broken and sad,” she sings in the first song on the album, and it is the heights and theatricality that Solar Power doesn’t rise to that are reminders Yelich-O’Connor is part of that “we.”
Lorde, in the end, is not your savior, and as its depicted in flashes across Solar Power, she never wanted to be. She also doesn’t owe you shit, but returned regardless, with an album that is, yes, challenging at times, but it is ultimately a listen that is worth the effort you put into it. What I have found, sitting with Solar Power for, like, two or three weeks at this point, is that it requires patience, which is something, I think, a lot of people do not have when it comes to pop music. Melodrama, in turn, had a coursing sense of urgency running through it from the moment it starts—Solar Power in its relaxed, breezy, thoughtful nature…it takes time, and what’s interesting is that while the collective “we” as listeners make foolish demands of artists, Solar Power makes demands of us—that we give it the space it needs to finally invite us in.
1- In the first year of Anhedonic Headphones (2013), I found myself listening to more pop music than I ever really had before, but listening mostly with a critical ear and if I remember correctly, not appreciating simply for what it was. Surprisingly I did really like the song “Roar” by Katy Perry, though I don’t think I’ve gone back to that song since 2013, and I liked about half of the Miley Cyrus album that came out late in the year.
2- Shout out to my former boss and still my best palington, Andrea.
3- For a better part of this year, and even late last year, I considered writing something about the song “Drops of Jupiter” by Train, which is now over 20 years old, and how I have this theory about the idea of pre-9/11 pop music and the innocence it captures that we can only really see now, so many years removed. For a number of years I looked at a song like that as a guilty pleasure but now I literally do not care who knows it but I, in earnest, love that song, regardless of how horrible the lyrics are.
4- Part of the discourse around this song is how when he ending, or the “payoff” to the song actually arrives, it doesn’t last as long as people feel like it should. I think it lasts just long enough—I mean, how much of it do you really want, in the end?
5- I am uncertain how well known the podcast Switched on Pop is. A friend of mine sent me a link to an episode around a year and a half ago when Carly Rae Jepsen was their guest. I think as a show, it’s way too overproduced and slick sounding, but maybe that’s what people want in a podcast? But also the hosts seem to take themselves way too seriously and also think they are probably the smartest people in the room, and that kind of arrogance really comes through when you listen, and I find I struggle with it, and sincerely hope I do not sound like that when I record my own podcasts.