Four years ago, Lorde sang, “You’re all gonna watch me disappear into the sun,” on her heart-wrenching sophomore record Melodrama, an album all about the riotous woes of young adulthood and first heartbreaks. Now, she’s harnessed the power of the sun—not for her devoted listeners, but for herself. On the New Zealand artist’s third album, Solar Power, she embarks on a path that is purely her own, as she returns to herself and her home country, guided by our closest star’s rays.
Lorde’s been a musical messiah of older Gen Z since her debut with Pure Heroine in 2013, on which she embodied the fleeting nature of youth, and the suffocating nature of suburbia. In the opening track of Solar Power, “The Path,” she rejects her role as someone responsible for creating the life soundtrack of those in their mid-20s. She sings, “The savior is not me,” pointing to the heavenly star that fuels life on Earth. She’s cast aside the notion that she should (or even could) be an oracle of wisdom, who channels her pain into songs for her fans to relate to. But there’s still plenty to learn within Solar Power, which tells the tale of a burnout generation looking at inheriting a burning planet. In “Leader Of A New Regime,” she asks the pressing question: Who will leads us into the future when the planet is becoming unlivable, and no amount of sunblock will protect us from the celestial orb that went from being our guide to our punisher? Lorde knows it can’t be her.
Unfortunately, this philosophical journey Lorde embarks on throughout Solar Power results in her least connective work yet—and one that lacks self awareness, to boot. Instead of looking for ways that she resembles her peers, Lorde looks for all the ways she doesn’t, while decrying the digital world and all that it encompasses. However, this mindset begins to take on a new stereotype: the person in their twenties who thinks they’ve seen all the cruel realities of the world, and begins to ponder a new way of life, preferably while smoking lots of that sweet green.
On “California,” Lorde takes an introspective look at the early moments of her career, such as when Carole King announced her Grammy wins in 2014. Within these reflections come visions of models, liquor bottles, jet setting, and kids buying Supreme, all of which flashed before her eyes as a teen pop star. As she sings, “Don’t want that California love,” she waves goodbye to the influencer culture, instead attempting to represent a kind of counter-culture that once existed in the Golden State, in the time of free love and a return to nature. (It feels like eons ago, and her efforts to recapture it come across as similarly past their sell-by date.) California enters the scene many more times throughout Solar Power, especially on the surf-pop track “Dominoes,” where she pokes fun at someone who now does yoga and prefers weed over copious amounts of cocaine. (Yes, there is some cognitive dissonance there, given the image she projects on the rest of the record.) She’s pointed in her criticism of the materialistic culture from which she wishes to unsubscribe, but it leaves a lot to be desired, creatively. Bashing models in L.A.? Not quite so revolutionary.
She backs all of her messages about the healing powers of nature with a more acoustic sound than she’s ever offered before. The singer-songwriter turns typical Cali music stylings on their head, evoking ’70s influences like those found on another recent Jack Antonoff-produced record—Clairo’s Sling—while mocking the wellness culture that pervades Los Angeles. Anything that starts out close to the earth and beneficial to the mind, she argues, is inevitably co-opted by capitalism, and colonized by white people. Lorde pings this message again on “Mood Ring,” making fun of Americans who turn to vitamins and Eastern practices to achieve a sort of faux-enlightenment. It’s clear she finds something more meaningful and genuine in New Zealand than she’s ever found in the states. In a way, though, she does capture the anxieties of her generation: one that’s facing climate change, the false reality that exists on social media, disenchantment with celebrity culture, and the endless pressure to buy, buy, buy. She’s not alone in her desire to return to something real.
As relevant as the themes are throughout Solar Power, Antonoff’s influence on the album is a little too clear. The Bleachers frontman evokes the records of his past in a way that doesn’t create anything new, and Solar Power ends up meandering, circling the same sounds and tonalities throughout the album. The layered vocal effects (created with the help of Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo) fail to extract anything new by the time the fourth or fifth track begins; like much of Solar Power, it’s potency wanes like the sun as the day goes on. While Lorde’s autonomy in her music is undeniable, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Antonoff has too much influence, when he’s playing the vast majority of the instruments on the album, while also writing and producing the entire thing right alongside her. Even as she finally approaches vulnerability in her stark reflection on youth in “Secrets From A Girl,” it feels cheapened by Antonoff’s generic guitar melodies. Nothing lurches out and grabs you by the throat as her music so often did in the past—all of the instrumentals, and even the most touching lyrics, feel like they’re lounging on a beach chair on some distant island.
As Solar Power goes on, it becomes an isolating listen. One of the biggest luxuries money can buy nowadays is simply being able to step away from the things that suffocate the rest of us: social media, capitalism, the everyday toil of life. Following the release of Melodrama, Lorde tuned out social media, and in her fan newsletter admits that she doesn’t even have any social apps on her phone. She took an adventure to Antartica, got to spend time off on exotic beaches, and checked out from the rest of the world without the pressure of money looming over her. The Kiwi’s made it clear that she rejects modernity, but that’s a luxury few can afford. At several points during the listen, it begins to feel like a rich white woman telling everyone she meets about how rejuvenating her all-inclusive, off-the-grid getaway was, and how everyone should take time off to travel.
Solar Power’s a little messy and rough around the edges, and features a Lorde now moving on from her youth and wanting to keep some things to herself. In short: It’s just like being 24. Given that she’s been famous for nearly a decade of her life at this point, her experiences diverge profoundly from the average twentysomething, and she’s found a space to reckon with those changes in order to reach a more level ground. She didn’t return from her break with all the answer for everyone’s problems, but did show up with some wisdom for herself; unfortunately the wannabe-deep messages get lost, because the music’s splashing around in the shallow end.