During the first year of the pandemic, speculation was rife that the crisis would spur an exodus from cities to smaller or more remote towns. The claims were vastly overblown, but perhaps spoke to a collective fantasy: A back-to-the-land movement today would have ample precedent, with waves of rural retreat having arisen every few decades at troubled times, dating back to the Industrial Revolution. Given not only COVID, but the urgencies of climate change and last year’s metropolitan clashes over racial justice, there have been signs of some young radicals seeking more fertile ground for their ideals in the countryside—the way so many disillusioned hippies famously did in the 1970s.
With the release this week of Lorde’s third album, Solar Power, it’s clear that New Zealand pop auteur Ella Yelich-O’Connor was onto that cultural mood well ahead of the curve—perhaps the right amount to match the moment, yet maybe too much for broad appeal. The record’s the product of a nearly four-year retreat following her acclaimed second album Melodrama, and more pertinently after an intensive course of global fame launched by her mega-hit “Royals” in 2013, when she was only 16. Melodrama hit nowhere near the same commercial heights, but as the title indicates, it was still swept up in the grand emotions of coming of age in such a heady state, even as she expanded her musical range with songwriting and producing partner Jack Antonoff, albeit always with Lorde’s inborn, wry self-consciousness. Back then, in 2017, I guessed that Lorde might not sustain her engagement in the pop-star game for long; Solar Power finds her in the process of making her exit, though she’s not fully out the door.
In 2018, she was already saying (as quoted in a Guardian profile), “If you’re here for the commercial performance of my work, you’ll only become more and more disenchanted.” And recently, in explaining why she’s booking smaller venues for her planned tour next year, she told the Wall Street Journal, “I don’t know if I’m ‘arena girl,’ you know?” You might snipe cynically that she’s just covering for the fact that she failed to sell out arenas on her Melodrama tour. But this seems more a matter of a maturing artist having mustered the nerve to stand up to labels and managers about things she never wanted to do in the first place. As she sings on “The Man With the Axe,” she’s a performer with “a throat that fills with panic every festival day.” On opener “The Path,” she presents a “teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash.” That same song finds her pushing back against hyperbolic online-fan culture by chiding, “Now, if you’re looking for a savior, that’s not me.” Where Melodrama was Lorde’s quintessential young-romance breakup album, Solar Power is partly about breaking up with pop stardom. It begins with that camera-nightmare scene and ends in “Oceanic Feeling” by foreseeing the singer removing the lordly robe she once sang she wore “like no one could,” throwing it on a sacrificial “pyre,” and withdrawing into “the choir.”
Thanks to the lengthy interim since album two, Lorde has managed to get beyond clichéd pop-star angst and process her feelings about fame with amusing exactitude and, as ever, self-awareness. (Which her successor, Billie Eilish, does not completely carry off on her recent sophomore album.) Lorde’s most definitive parting of the ways with celebrity culture comes on “California,” which opens by invoking her 2014 Grammy night triumph and then personifies the state, especially Los Angeles, as a perfidious lover she has to leave behind, despite all her residual affections. Yet California as concept, especially its communal cults and Laurel Canyon musical mythologies, hangs over the rest of the album, as she moves along to exploring viable alternatives for a life worth living and art worth making.
On Solar Power, the prime channel she sees for that quest is through realignment to nature. But while indulging her yearnings for sun and surf, she’s conscious of that past back-to-the-land generation, who sought similar solutions with “psychedelic garlands in our hair” and yet failed to save the Earth. The song including that line, “Fallen Fruit,” is the closest the album comes to Greta Thunberg–esque generational climate protest; generally Lorde undercuts any urge to preach by keeping the mixed record of back-to-nature movements in mind. She rolls her eyes at “wellness” culture among her own peer group on “Mood Ring”; calls out a bad dude who’s covering his tracks by going New Age, in Woodstock no less, on “Dominoes” (including the immortal slam, “It’s strange to see you smoking marijuana/ You used to do the most cocaine of anyone I’d ever met”); and cocks her head at the potential cultishness of eco-consciousness on the title track (“I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus”) and on “Leader of a New Regime”—both of which stand on the borderline between utopian and dystopian dreams.
These ambiguities have led to puzzled looks from early listeners over whether Solar Power is satirical, basic, corny, or even “just cringe.” I find it hard to imagine anyone has listened to Lorde for the past seven years and doesn’t assume that she’s thought through those criticisms in advance and gone on to answer “yes” to all of the above. I hear Solar Power as operating in the manner of the past decade of “autofiction,” in which the voice is at once the artist and not—an unreliable, possibly deluded narrator, who’s nonetheless struggling to be direct and sincere.
Yelich-O’Connor is absolutely heartfelt in the way that she’s counterposing the Californian mythos of back-to-naturism with the less culturally preprocessed version that she experienced by recentering in her New Zealand homeland, to pass her days with family, friends, pets, and a lover, as well as taking an eye-opening trip to consider climate change in Antarctica. But she’s also fully clued in to the preposterousness of a 24-year-old millionaire singer issuing prescriptions, and the soporific luxury of her lounges on the beach. Solar Power is at once reminiscent of Thoreau’s Walden and of Mike White’s The White Lotus or Hulu’s new Nine Perfect Strangers, featuring Nicole Kidman as a highly sus “wellness” guru. As much as Lorde’s departed from her past goth-girl darkness for sunnier surfaces, she can smell the rot below.
Where I’m torn in my turn, though, is musically. The record’s reflective mode calls for a kind of intimate midtempo ease free of the stark confrontations of her “Royals” era and the dynamic, well, drama of Melodrama. It shifts away from synths and keyboards to the acoustic and echoey electric guitars that Lorde previously shunned, the better to generate beachy atmosphere and callbacks to California psych and folk rock—the Grateful Dead, CSNY, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell—as well as the upbeat turn-of-the-century pop of Yelich-O’Connor’s own age of innocence: Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” S Club 7, Natalie Imbruglia, et al. Song-by-song, these blend satisfyingly with Lorde’s much-imitated, superb vocal layering, here enhanced for the first time with guest harmonies, by contemporaries Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo, among others. But across 40-odd minutes, it can come to seem like a pastel smear, without the memorably staged surprise moments Lorde’s usually excelled at.
That’s not to say Solar Power’s lacking in emotion, particularly when she sings about her family at the climax of “Stoned at the Nail Salon” and in the six-minute expanse of “Oceanic Feeling” (the verse about her own prospective future daughter is especially disarming). Or when she offers generous succor to her younger self—and her younger listeners by extension—on “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All).” But it requires listeners to breathe their own way into the music, not unlike another low-key comeback release by an artist after a long hiatus, 2018’s Honey by Robyn—who makes a softly sardonic spoken-word cameo at the end of “Secrets From a Girl,” in a kind of spiritual relay, one mentor to another. In both cases, the artist isn’t chasing approval. Solar Power partly emanates from Lorde having resigned from social media during her absence from the pop world—an intentionally off-the-grid, out-of-touch perspective that, as wise as it might be, also risks setting this album out of synch with most listeners’ own mindsets in 2021. Perhaps including mine. As much as some may rush to declare the record a masterpiece and others a disappointment, it might demand a longer-than-usual settling period. In those California sunset-of-Aquarius days of 1975, many reviewers similarly dismissed Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns as heavy-handedly conceptual and musically indistinct. On the other hand, a lot of albums that feel in-between at first also fade from even their advocates’ memories pretty fast.
Part of Lorde’s unplugging inspiration was Oakland artist and writer Jenny Odell’s 2019 How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, a more complex, thoughtful book than most trendy tomes on how phone addiction is reshaping people’s consciousness and how to reattach our senses to our local, embodied surroundings. I started asking myself how Solar Power compares with the sorts of artworks Odell discusses. It has the vivid sense of place, but not the experimental techniques that frame and direct audiences’ awareness away from narratives about the world and lead them into profoundly renewed encounters with natural phenomena (as in James Turrell’s “Sky Room” installations or Pauline Oliveros’s “deep listening” sonic adventures). Of course, Lorde’s not claiming to attempt such maneuvers, despite the samples of cicadas and wind she layers into some tracks—it would be an improbable thing to achieve with first-person pop songs, no matter how self-aware. Still, I’m left wondering if the world of Solar Power can become more immersive and enveloping over time, or if the effects she’s after might demand another leap or three beyond her remaining pop habits, into some other realm. Then again, like every paradoxically imperfect utopian gesture, and as Lorde always seems to know, no doubt it’s both and neither.