Universal Music Group
Things have been apocalyptic lately. The plague rages on. The planet is on fire. It feels like the Lord should be returning any day now. In the meantime, another Lorde has returned.
“Lead the boys and girls onto the beaches / come one, come all, I’ll tell you my secrets / I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus,” sings the New Zealand singer-songwriter on her newest album’s airy lead single and title track. The line is a joke about her stage name, but it’s also a wry way of subverting saviorism in pop culture and announcing a new version of herself. In “Solar Power,” she has swapped her trademark angst for rest and joy, resulting in a refreshing album that doesn’t always cohere.
The sunny mood is notable for a reason. In her 2013 debut album “Pure Heroine,” teenage Lorde critiqued consumerism and celebrity culture. She was cynical, detached and clever, delivering withering lines over dark electronic beats. In her 2017 sophomore album “Melodrama,” she turned her gaze away from the woes of society and toward the tumult of being young. The masterful work had the beating heart of youthful uncertainty, of knowing that every gleaming and dreadful thing is possible.
This time around, she brings one simple message: relax.
As ever with Lorde, “Solar Power,” which came out in August, has layers. It pokes fun at wellness culture and grapples with aging and confronts the climate crisis. Yet with all the big ideas floating around, Lorde doesn’t want to be a prophet. Instead, she imagines living out the rest of her days reading magazines on an island in “Leader of a New Regime.”
The new direction is more than welcome in an era with … so much going on. The issue is that “Solar Power” flits in different directions, uncommitted to being either an air-tight concept album or vehicle for raw emotion. Even so, the same Lorde who wrote “Royals” and “Green Light” is behind this music, chock full of interesting instrumentation and literary writing.
The album takes a few songs to get on its feet. It begins with “The Path,” in which Lorde renounces her past as a mouthpiece for sad wallflowers. “Now 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,” she sings. It’s a disappointing opener with a deflated melody and uninspired lyrics about how hard it is to be famous, but luckily the title track soon picks up the pace.
“California Love” wanders into the same well-trodden territory as the opening track, but again is followed by a superior song. In “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” a spare ballad whose title sounds like a Saturday Night Live sketch, Lorde ruminates on the need to settle down, teasing emotion out of small domestic details.
After another half-baked song, “Fallen Fruit,” the album finally lands on a true bop, “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All).” The song harkens back to the early 2000s hits from Colbie Callait and Natasha Beddingfield that you still hear reigning supreme at Walgreens and CVS. Lorde adopts the voice of a wise older sister or orientation leader, doling out corny advice with delightful abandon. The song’s only flaw is that it didn’t come out early enough to make it on the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” soundtrack.
The next three tracks explore different dimensions of love, offering some of the album’s best images. “You felled me clear as a pine,” Lorde sings soulfully over melancholy electric guitar in “The Man with the Axe.” “Dominoes,” a catchy highlight, takes on a lover who can’t stick around: “Fifty gleaming chances in a row / Then I watch you flick them down like dominoes / Must feel good to be Mr. Start Again.” In “Big Star,” an acoustic ode to the artist’s deceased dog, she rips your heart out by simply singing that she wants to take her pet’s picture again.
Towards the end, the album takes a final dip in quality with “Mood Ring.” The song’s critique of wellness culture feels shallow and there’s nothing remarkably original about the melody. Luckily, Lorde has one more trick up her sleeve, returning to her core theme of winding down on the final track, “Oceanic Feeling.” The song’s atmospheric production is a perfect home for its meandering lyrics, which float from her little brother to her future daughter to finding enlightenment. “I know you’re scared, so was I / But all will be revealed in time,” she sings, sending the listener off like a paper boat on the wide expanse of the sea, lost and content.
Lorde has not saved the world with “Solar Power.” Thank God she didn’t try. Instead, she’s created an imperfect album that flutters more than it soars, a temporary sun-soaked antidote for the anxiety of the age. If the apocalypse doesn’t let up any time soon, we might need its light breeze every now and then.