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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

‘Solar Power’: An album by Lorde, for Lorde

Maggie Klaers | The Observer
Maggie Klaers | The Observer

This time around, Lorde’s doing it for the fans. “Solar Power,” the singer-songwriter’s third studio album, is rife with intensely weird, almost avant-garde musical choices — wispy, stripped-down sound, a prominent disregard for traditional song structure, the occasional spoken-word interlude — leaving most of its 12 tracks very radio-unfriendly. Gone are the screaming, sprawling arenas of her two previous tours; 2022’s Solar Power Tour will transpire in smaller, more intimate spaces like parks, vineyards and opera houses. And unless you frequent the dark depths of Lorde stan Twitter, you might not have heard much about this album at all. Its promotional campaign was sparse, largely confined to ambiguous updates on the singer’s website and occasional opt-in emails from Lorde herself. For an artist of her caliber, Lorde seems to be doing everything wrong — but maybe she likes it that way.

This album isn’t an easy first listen unless you’re familiar with Lorde’s incredibly private public persona. With no social media (except for a sporadic but not-so-secret onion ring account) and only the occasional email to sustain fans’ attention, there is a certain mystery surrounding the woman behind Lorde, aka Ella Yelich-O’Connor. Casual fans will find this album a serious departure from the emotional maximalism of “Melodrama” yet a completely different record than her stripped-down first record “Pure Heroine.” Dedicated fans, meanwhile, might be familiar with her newfound interest in environmentalism — documented in her photography book “Going South” — and will recognize the reflections of her love for the natural world as seen in the album’s first single, “Solar Power.” The album’s opening track, “The Path,” has Yelich-O’Connor rejecting the industry’s mantle of fame, literally saying, “Now if you’re looking for a savior, well that’s not me” and instead offering her fans solidarity, offering to walk alongside them through the ups and downs of every day. She’s not interested in being a big star or outdoing the success of “Royals” — she’s just another gal like you, enjoying the summer sun and moving through the chaos of life.

Later in the album, Yelich-O’Connor dedicates an entire song (“Big Star”) to her beloved late pet, Pearl, singing of her unconditional love for him. An emotional song in its own right — both of us cried when listening to it — Yelich-O’Connor mourns her loss while also putting the love between humans and pets into words. Anyone who’s lost a pet will understand the emotion behind the song, but admittedly it is an uncommon choice for the topic of a track. Many have branded "Big Star" as the album’s “Liability,” but it feels much more intimate. While almost anyone can identify with the piano ballads of “Melodrama,” the sad songs of “Solar Power” seem much less concerned with relatability, with lyrics that seem to be ripped straight from Lorde’s personal diary.

“Mood Ring,” a later track on the record, is a departure from the earlier songs about embracing nature and the mundanity of her everyday life. Yelich-O’Connor sharply critiques modern-day wellness and spirituality, satirizing western media’s recent turn to eastern practices as an attempt to reconnect with the world amid so much turbulence. Trendy forays into wellness culture have resulted in an industry hawking vitamins, supplements, crystals, sage and yes, even mood rings, in an attempt to lure customers into capitalism cloaked in health and wellness. By satirizing this new wave of consumerism, Yelich-O’Connor rejects the trends of Hollywood, prioritizing her personal enjoyment of the song over lyrical relatability and radio playing power.

With all of this considered, one thing becomes clear: “Solar Power” wasn’t created to charm critics, or even to expand Lorde’s audience. Once again, this is an album for the fans, not for the masses. This is an album for those who played “Melodrama” on repeat for four years, waiting for Lorde’s next declaration of how to live your life. But despite awaiting this album for four years and enjoying it now that it has entered the world, we can’t help but think that it’s not even that. Maybe this album isn’t for the masses, or even for the fans — maybe it’s a Lorde album for Lorde.

We don’t say that to criticize; if anything, we admire her selfishness. It takes courage to create an album solely for yourself after the internationally acclaimed success of your first two musical creations. Lorde has rejected the music industry’s demand for hit after hit, and instead escaped to the quiet of New Zealand, creating an album that gives her peace and fills her soul.

But while this large-scale rejection isn’t anything new — artists like Fiona Apple and Chance the Rapper have spent entire careers at odds with industry expectations — it’s especially interesting to see a version of it from Lorde, whose songwriting has always seemed hyper-cognizant of audiences’ and critics’ judgement. “Pure Heroine,” while subversive in style, still centers industry norms by repeatedly insisting upon its departure from them. “We don’t care,” she repeats like a mantra in “Royals,” so much so that you start to think she might actually care a lot. And in response to criticism of that teenaged apathy, she crafted “Melodrama,” an album that cares in excess, cares unabashedly, melodramatically. Even as these albums appear to be polar opposites of each other, both are still mindful of their respective places in Hollywood and the music scene. Each prior release in Lorde’s discography operated with the industry in the back of its mind.

And that’s why the carefree emotions of “Solar Power” shine so brightly. For Lorde, it’s a long-awaited escape from the industry’s expectations and assumptions. If “Pure Heroine” was an intentionally subversive understatement and "Melodrama" was reactionary maximalism, then "Solar Power" is a healthy equilibrium for Lorde, a newfound space of industry immunity and creative independence. And honestly, we love that for her.

So is “Solar Power” better than “Melodrama” or “Pure Heroine?” Can we even compare the three of them? Do we have any right to review this album? Is this album even meant for us?

Honestly, we don’t care. It’s good.

Album: “Solar Power”

Artist: Lorde

Label: Universal Music New Zealand

Favorite songs: “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” “Mood Ring”

If you like: Maggie Rogers, Jimmy Buffett, the feeling of morning dew on the grass between your toes

Shamrocks:  4.5/5 shamrocks