Back in 2013, Lorde was wondering just what it would be like to be a pop star and have the excesses and riches that today’s superstars have. Apparently, according to her 2013 smash Royals, diamonds, Cristal, jet planes and islands were well beyond her reach.
Here we are eight years later, and Lorde is a bone fide pop star, and all of those things are hers for the taking. The video for Solar Power (a song that finds the mid-point between George Michael‘s Faith and Primal Scream‘s Loaded) sees her dancing around on a beach that looks like paradise and singing about being a prettier Jesus. Interestingly, the song that opens the album, The Path, finds her contemplating the life of a reclusive teen millionaire, alone on their island, refusing to take calls and rejecting the idea that she might be somebody’s saviour. If Solar Power has a defining feature, it’s that it is definitely a cup half full/empty kind of record.
Lorde’s third album finds her wrestling with her past, her relationships, the idea of what a pop star should be and how a pop album should sound. Solar Power is a very different beast to what came before, awash with low-key, shimmering, folk inflected pop songs, she’s taken a step back from the exact things that catapulted her towards mainstream success. That said, she’s also embracing the very sound and feel of albums made by her contemporaries in the pop world right now. It would be cynical to suggest that Solar Power is capitalising on the slightly more introspective recent offerings from the likes of Taylor Swift, but there’s no doubting that it’s an album that fits nicely alongside such moves of musical direction in the upper echelons of pop music right now.
Where Lorde succeeds, and has always done so, is to maintain a constant swing between the positive and negative, the dark and the illuminated. Even at her best, there was always the feeling that the worst wasn’t far from the surface. It’s clear to see in the opening two tracks of the album – on one a prettier Jesus dancing on an idyllic beach, on the other, a lonely pop star on an island ignoring calls from her record company.
Stepping away from programmed beats and the traits of her two previous efforts and finding a more “authentic” sound influenced by the ’60s California sound and a fair bit of weed apparently, makes for an album that at times feels a little loose and lacking in focus. The weed certainly explains the occasional paranoia and surface level deep thinking that populates some of these songs. At times, in the wash of hookless music, Solar Power is in danger of becoming background music that struggles to demand attention. This is particularly true as the album reaches its conclusion. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe this is supposed to be an album to drift away to, to bask in the sunshine with and try to forget the bad stuff, even though the sun is burning the skin from your bones. It’s an album that feels like being stoned. You’re focused one moment, and staring into the distance thinking about nothing the next. It’s perhaps a record enjoyed in single moments. After all, all great pop songs tend to be singles.
When separated out, the themes of the album make more impact and hit home a bit harder. Stoned At The Nail Salon is a dainty and introspective album that implores the listener to spend more time with the people they love (it also includes a nice “er, I forgot the line” stoned lyric drop). Mood Ring is a jaunty tune that sets its sights on the types of people that need a spiritual sign to work out exactly how they feel, or a trip out East to cleanse their state, rather than trusting their own feelings. It’s one of the more direct moments on the album. Big Star mourns the loss of her dog whilst also addressing the change in her life from party animal to melancholy recluse. Meanwhile, Leader Of The New Regime addresses climate change and asks for somebody to make a stand (whilst simultaneously backing away from taking the role herself).
There’s a lot of smart self-awareness on Solar Power that at times could be totally misread as self-pity or pop star sermonising. This deftness of touch is perhaps the album’s strong point, allied to its floaty pop dream state; it’s not always easy to stay focused, but concentration is rewarded. In one of the album’s stronger moments, Secrets From The Girl Who’s Seen It All, Lorde explores relationship failures, the speed of ageing, self help, and pointless “You’ll be fine hun” support you find in wellness forums and social media. The song’s conclusion – narrated by Robyn – finds us at an existential airport, dealing with emotional baggage and staring into the sun. If such a place existed, Lorde playing in the background in the arrivals lounge would be no bad thing. Straight out of the airport, get on with life, get stoned, and head to the nail salon.
This might not be the album that everyone wanted from Lorde, but it’s a solid, dreamy effort that deserves exploration. There’s plenty here worthy of attention if you can focus for long enough. Her next step should be interesting as she seems to have dealt with leaving childish things behind at this point. Perhaps it’s time to start growing old disgracefully and start dancing like nobody’s watching.