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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Hot Lorde summer is over: A ‘Solar Power’ retrospective


Lorde’s work has always been mindful of cohesion. Even in the New Zealand native’s first record, “Pure Heroine” — a 10-song collection hastily thrown together after the unpredicted success of “Royals” — an underlying theme feels palpable: teenage turmoil, suburban boredom and the angst of growing older. And 2017’s “Melodrama” is essentially a concept album, mapping the singer’s thoughts on love, loss, heartbreak and hedonism across the events of a single house party.

So it seemed safe to assume that “Solar Power,” the singer-songwriter’s long-awaited third studio album, would follow suit, building itself from the ground up around a strong, cohesive theme. And this time around, Lorde seemed to have her sights set on a message of environmentalism. The trash dotting the otherwise spotless beaches in the album’s first music video — meant to be a celebration of New Zealand’s natural beauty — seemed to foreshadow larger conversations about the climate crisis. And in the name of waste reduction, Lorde’s team would forgo the production of CDs, instead opting for the diskless “Music Box,” a plastic-free and “forward-thinking” alternative with a digital download code. 

But this theory would soon be chopped down. “Solar Power” might be a lot of things, Lorde told The Guardian in June, but it wouldn’t be her “big climate change record.”

So what would it be instead? 

Fans eagerly awaited the album’s release to find out — but when “Solar Power” finally hit the airwaves, they realized the answer might not be as simple as they thought.

For many, “Solar Power” seemed to draw a line in the sand. Critics weren’t too impressed. Longtime and hardcore fans were disappointed. Twitter had a field day, and they blamed it all on Lorde’s newfound happiness.

Immediately following its release, most negative reviews of “Solar Power” condemned the vast stylistic departure from its predecessors — without much care for the consequences, the album trades the emotional intensity and skintight production of Lorde’s earlier discography for ambivalent messaging and flowy, meandering melodies. Lyrics that once spoke to entire generations may now only resonate for those who have experienced a summer in New Zealand. And songs no longer end with a bang; they fade out without much fanfare, and often without a bridge or a second verse.  

But that was more than three months ago. It’s December, and the Northern hemisphere is far from “Solar Power” weather — we all had the chance to have our hot Lorde summer. Now, with hindsight on our side, an even larger problem emerges: a distinct lack of the thematic cohesion that Lorde is known for.

“Solar Power” feels like an album being pulled in two different directions. While “Pure Heroine” and “Melodrama” both stuck to their respective storylines — whether they be suburban teen angst or house party heartbreak — the tone of “Solar Power” ebbs and flows like a riptide.

This tonal discordance is manifest in the album’s tracklist: “Big Star,” an admittedly heartbreaking elegy for Lorde’s late dog Pearl, directly precedes “Leader of a New Regime,” an irreverent interlude that tells the story of a celebrity escaping to an island with her magazines and designer dresses, satirizing upper-class naivete in the face of the climate crisis.

Turbulent transitions like these happen more than you would expect across the 14-track album, and they leave “Solar Power” feeling like two half-albums mashed into one. Oscillating between these two wildly different tones, the listener is left dazed and confused somewhere in the middle — and what even is the midpoint between intimate introspection and climate catastrophe?

But this doesn’t mean the album’s not worth a listen. Most tracks are enjoyable on their own — “Mood Ring” and “The Man with the Axe” are undeniably highlights — and Lorde’s authoritative alto sounds better than ever. The record as a whole, however, feels carelessly crafted, lacking the cohesive, conscientious theming of albums past.

And all this fusions to create a disappointedly underwhelming album, one that already seems to be fading from the music industry’s radar. With bold choices and strong notions of identity, “Pure Heroine” and “Melodrama” cemented themselves as mainstays of the indie pop subgenre — but “Solar Power,” with its emotional ambivalence and paper-thin themes, finds itself in danger of vanishing entirely. 

The album’s lack of Grammy nominations only exemplifies this danger. With her previous records earning Lorde five nominations and two wins, the Recording Academy’s indifference toward “Solar Power” might signal the end of an era. Back in 2014, Lorde was the music industry’s intriguing new character, an outsider with enough raw talent to wedge herself in. But with “Solar Power,” Lorde fully embraces the anti-industry sentiments that have pervaded her career from the beginning — and as a result, she’s never felt farther from mainstream popularity. 

But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “Solar Power” isn’t disappointing because it’s detached from industry standards; it’s disappointing because it’s detached from Lorde’s earlier work, and thus detached from many of the elements that made that music great: decidedness, cohesiveness and emotional intensity. 

So I’m not asking Lorde to move back to New York and start Grammy-baiting; she can continue her beach trip, if she wants. I just hope her next musical effort — whenever it may come — feels a bit more focused.