When New Zealand bred songwriter Lorde burst into the music scene in 2013 at just 16, she sent a bolt of electricity through a stagnant hit making industry with “Royals.” Her damning indictment of inauthentic celebrity culture and the public fascination that fuels it struck a chord with those tired of songs that promote a materialistic and shallow view of society. The album that accompanied the hit, Pure Heroine, was just as subversive and raw, exploring complex themes through the eyes of a child of the Internet generation. Lorde explored everything from disillusionment with the world she grew up in to the battle between authenticity and inauthenticity in a culture that appears to place more value on the latter.
Lorde shifted her perspective by the time her 2017 follow-up Melodrama was released. No longer the outsider looking in on the world of fame, Lorde was now music royalty herself. This tension was evident in the production of the record as Lorde worked with mega producer Jack Antonoff for the first time. Melodrama was critically acclaimed upon its release and received several Grammy nods, but it failed to produce a monster commercial hit like “Royals” despite selling well. Many outside her devoted fanbase began to ask if Lorde was a one hit wonder.
But those who focused only on chart performance missed the point entirely. Lorde was never supposed to be the biggest artist in pop, and she doesn’t intend to live that life now. Her latest effort Solar Power proves Lorde is still the genius we met in 2013, only with a more mature view of life. The years-long break between her albums along with self imposed isolation from Hollywood produced a unique record that is clearly the album she wanted to make rather than the one she thought listeners wanted to hear. The confidence she exudes throughout speaks to her new “take me or leave me” approach to making music, and it works. As she recently told The Wall Street Journal, “I don’t know if I’m ‘arena girl,’ you know … I’m an amphitheater girl. I’m a 150-year-old theater girl.”
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Every song on the album is a gem. Lorde opens Solar Power with a thesis statement of sorts in “The Path,” which cautions against turning to celebrities for emotional connection by using Lorde’s own experience in the limelight. Lorde’s imagery in her lyrics has always been her greatest strength, and that is on display in this short but impactful song: “Arm in a cast at the museum gala/Fork in my purse to take home to my mother/Supermodels all dancing ’round a pharaoh’s tomb.” She continues the vivid imagery in the title track, with my favorite line on the album: “Come one, come all, I’ll tell you my secrets/I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus.”
While there are gorgeous love songs, one for her romantic love (“The Man With the Axe”) and for her beloved dog (“Big Star”), the main target of Lorde’s talents is celebrity culture and society itself. While Pure Heroine was an angsty expression of teen anger and Melodrama examined the ebbs and flows of one relationship, Solar Power turns the rage down to a simmer with targeted and biting observations. “California” shows how her childhood dream of stardom was taken down by the reality of fame as she notes, “It got hard to grow up with your cool hand around my neck.” On “Dominoes,” Lorde turns her attention to a man who has infinite chances to mess up because of privilege despite not really deserving a second chance. She does not hold back lyrically, with the line “It’s strange to see you smoking marijuana/You used to do the most cocaine/Of anyone I’d ever met” serving as a small sample of the sarcasm she unleashes.
But the best two songs on the album by far are “Stoned at the Nail Salon” and “Mood Ring.” “Stoned at the Nail Salon” focuses around Lorde’s voice, a choice that makes it seem as though you are with Lorde, listening to her manicure musings. It’s a melancholy song about how life is always changing and how foolish it can be to try to hold on to the past. When she sings, “‘Cause all the beautiful girls, they will fade like the roses/And all the times they will change, it’ll all come around/I don’t know/Maybе I’m just stoned at the nail salon,” you feel it somewhere in your soul.
“Mood Ring,” on the other hand, is a direct send-up of wellness culture that is hilariously snarky while expressing the general anxiety of our generation. It’s about searching for something to fill the void, and how that void is often filled by buying whatever fad product claims to generate happiness. Lorde is famously averse to social media and doesn’t have a phone that connects to the internet. But while she gleefully mocks those who say, “Let’s fly somewherе eastern, they’ll havе what I need,” she is able to empathize with the feeling of being lost and searching for connection. The refrain, “I can’t feel a thing/I keep looking at my mood ring/Tell me how I’m feeling,” is a universal emotion.
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It’s rare for an artist to hit a home run with every album they release. Even the most iconic artists put out a collection of songs that don’t work every once and a while. But so far, Lorde is three for three. She makes the exact music she wants to make with the collaborators she chooses, and that shows in the quality of her music. Much has been made of how the media over-emphasizes Antonoff’s role in crafting both Melodrama and Solar Power, with some critics who did not like Solar Power believing it was his stripped down production values that made a less flashy record (despite the fact the Lorde was the one who made that choice). It’s true: Solar Power sounds nothing like Pure Heroine or Melodrama. It’s full of acoustic guitar and lacks her trademark synthesizers.
But what critics have never fully understood about Lorde is that her songwriting is stronger than her production for a reason. Lorde is the daughter of a poet who crafts her lyrics like they’re poetry and figures the music out later. She’s quirky and gawky, and that youthful awkwardness is what gave her a strange sort of mainstream appeal when “Royals” debuted. She wasn’t aiming for the top of the charts, but she landed there because her brand of gothic disaffectedness was a direct antidote to the manufactured pop music at that exact moment in time. In 2013, liking Lorde was a way of claiming a counter-cultural identity. It became more about her image than her actual music.
Lorde was never meant to be a pop star a la Billie Eilish (who in many ways is what Lorde was expected to be eight years ago and pulls it off better). She was meant to be the kind of breezy alternative artist who disappears for 10 years, releases a brilliant record, then disappears again. Solar Power proves Lorde remains the queen of her own world, and we’re all just living in it. It contains some of her best lyrics, and it’s a confident step forward for an artist coming into her own. Solar Power isn’t a departure; it’s Lorde arriving at her intended destination.
Solar Power is out now wherever you listen to music.