If you, like me, were somewhat confused that Lorde’s bright and shiny summertime fun album was coming out at the tail-end of August, just as the last stand of summer begins to fade into the colder and foggier recesses of Autumn, rest assured that there is a reason. Despite the explosive jubilance of lead single ‘Solar Power’, and despite the campfire strum-along nature of the record’s composition and arrangement, Solar Power isn’t actually a summer album at all.
The third LP from New Zealand’s premier pop superstar has been marketed as a joyously carefree, over the top explosion of chill vibes and sunshine. It’s not a psychedelic freak out; the press releases and interviews assured us it’s a weed album, man. The darker days of Melodrama and the hardened exterior of Pure Heroine have given way to lively exuberance. As it turns out, we’ve been duped by the title, promotion, and agreed-upon themes of Solar Power. When you actually sit down and listen to it, the album is more “summertime sadness” than “hot fun in the summertime”.
The first sign that this release isn’t what it seems is through the leadoff track ‘The Path’. Instead of cutting loose, Lorde focuses on the loneliness and alienation that comes with success at such a young age. Her songwriting was always personal, but now there are specific references to events that her audience will connect with, like her appearance at the 2016 Met Ball, instead of observations and metaphors of her life behind closed doors.
The openness that Lorde feels in sharing her life on record certainly feels like a change. Whereas Melodrama was maximalist on sound but minimalist on citable public details, Solar Power feels like the opposite: willing to discuss the fame and identity that surrounds her, but with a stripped-back guitar-focused approach to songwriting.
This approach seems evocative of relaxed sessions, but it can have its downsides and restrictions as well. There’s a certain sameness to most of the songs that extends past the notion of creating a unified sonic identity for the album and into redundancy and tired repetition. It sounds like Lorde and producer Jack Antinoff composed sitting around with acoustic guitars and decided not to change the arrangements from there. It works occasionally, but it feels listless when stretched over 45 minutes.
One of the driving factors in Lorde’s lyrical approach is how different her life is from when she first became famous. She makes no bones about the fact that she doesn’t connect with the ‘Royals’ era version of herself anymore, and she treats her decade in the spotlight as if it was a lifetime. To be fair, Lorde has probably lived more in ten years than most people have in twenty, and the only way you’ll hear a condescending tone to the lyrics is if you’re looking for it. With an open mind, Lorde’s lyrics feel honest and impassioned for where she is in her life right now. That’s a mindset worth retaining while listening to Solar Power.
There are moments of sublime bliss to be had, like on the album’s shortest and longest track ‘Leader of a New Regime’ and closer ‘Oceanic Feeling’. But the back end of the record begins to get lighter and lighter as it pushes on, removing percussion that was pushing earlier songs along. Once powerful and direct, Lorde’s voice hangs over the arrangements like a spectral presence, haunting the songs instead of embodying and emboldening them. Detachment, whether it’s lyrical or musical, is the central theme of Solar Power.
Solar Power is a good album, in that it’s a well-produced, well-performed, too-big-too-fail album from one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Lorde’s reaction was to strip it all away and find the folkier, more hazy side of her sound. It works, but only for about half of the runtime. The other half isn’t bad, but it’s not nearly as memorable as it should be. While writing this review, it was raining on a rare cool summer day that was a welcome respite from a seemingly never-ending heatwave. That’s the vibe that fits Solar Power the best: a foggy, slightly cold and removed feeling in an otherwise sunny time.