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Mellow drama: Lorde’s ‘Solar Power’

By Michael Sun

The New Zealand pop star’s latest album is styled as self-aware but the result shows the trappings of self-indulgence

Lorde in the film clip for “Solar Power”. Source: Universal Music / YouTube

Everyone is leaving nowadays. For generations, pop culture has idolised the big city – its promises and myths, its spectacles and thrills, perhaps none more stirring than the act of getting there itself. Small-town girls and small-town boys fled their cloistered hometowns for the allure of brighter lights, searching for an urban fantasy rooted in just one desire: escape.

But escape isn’t what it used to be. The city has become a fickle beast, the gold-streeted fantasy turned dusty. The lights are too bright. Our apartments are claustrophobic. And were our hometowns even that bad after all? Once hemmed in and cut off from the beating heart of “culture”, they now feel more expansive than their urban counterparts – if nothing else, a house with a backyard is more than something you daydream about while staring down the barrel of another Zoom birthday.

Those who can have escaped in a kind of reverse migration, returning to slower rhythms and hushed lifestyles. The regional outpost has become its own indicator of class and privilege, a sure sign that its inhabitant had the means to escape their cramped, locked-down confines in the first place – a holiday home, perhaps, and a cushy office job able to be performed remotely. New York Times executives learnt how to obscure their pools, ocean views and nannies from the background of video calls taken from country manors. Yuppie Londoners made sea changes spurred by middle-class existential crises. In Australia: an exodus from Sydney and Melbourne as people ensconced themselves away from the rat-race, clinging to the hope that all this would run its course in due time. Everyone is leaving. Everyone has left.

And so it was that music drifted away from its spiritual centres too, reaching into the recesses of secluded enclaves to unearth deep, dark (and often diaristic) delights. Isolation was the common denominator – not just the government-mandated variety but the act of whisking oneself away as respite from the modern world, as much part of an artistic process as a wellness trend. Taylor Swift ventured – if not physically then sonically – into the woods with folklore and evermore, a diptych of records framed by pastoral fairytales and shepherded, at times, by Bon Iver’s earthy, gravelly growl. (It’s telling that both album covers feature the misty silhouettes of a fairytale forest.) Bedroom pop singer Clairo followed a similar trajectory, relocating to a mountaintop in upstate New York with “zero internet footprint”, as she recounts, for her sophomore record Sling, which trades her signature lo-fi beats for whispered intimations on maternity and burnout. Even Lana Del Rey, pop’s greatest archivist of the American coasts – spanning “Brooklyn Baby” to “Venice Bitch” – journeyed into the heartland for her latest album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, namechecking Nebraska, Oklahoma and Arkansas over a sprawling travelogue of Jesus freaks and strung-out lovers. And you thought the city was chaotic.

Call it prescience, then, that Lorde has been checking out since 2018, after a year-long tour and promo schedule for Melodrama, her feverishly acclaimed second record, which cemented her position as industry auteur and prophet of a certain kind of melancholy – the kind you have in the aftermath of a rager, where half-formed thoughts, by virtue of their vocalisation, can take on something like transcendence. In the midst of a gruelling year, something within her broke. She scrubbed herself clean from the internet, embarking on that oft-cited but rarely accomplished act of petty rebellion: a digital detox. She deleted her social media apps, then their vestiges too. “I got rid of a search engine function on my cell phone so I can’t Google anything,” she told James Corden recently. “I felt like my brain wasn’t working very well anymore.”

In other words: she escaped, slinking away noiselessly even as the world moved on around her, even as fans clamoured for new material. Like her peers would later do, she decamped to far-flung extremities, though hers weren’t the verdant woodlands of Taylor or Clairo, or the open-air thrills of the highway, à la Lana: it was a trip to Antarctica, the “great white palette cleanser”, as she evangelises in her newsletter, a salve that “showed me the beginnings of the new world”.

If that sounds lofty, it’s because it is. Lorde has always fashioned herself as an intellectual, even if she would baulk at a term like that. It’s easy to slap a label like “wise beyond their years” onto anyone who’s successful and vaguely precocious, but how else to describe an artist such as Lorde, who appeared at age 16, fully formed, with a track lampooning the proper-nouned extravagances of celebrity culture? How else to describe an artist whose primary form of contact with the public nowadays is a sporadic longform newsletter brimming with ecstatic, ekphrastic prose, often name-dropping the signifiers of an educated, tasteful curation: Jia Tolentino, Dries van Noten, Maggie Nelson, a William Blake painting for good measure?

That newsletter is also where the early rollout for Solar Power, her latest album, occurred, via lengthy meditations on everything from swimming pools to grilled nectarines that teetered on the edge of free-wheeling and florid. “Her feet are bare at all times,” Lorde writes about her new persona, drawn out of hibernation by the first sign of sunbeams. “She’s sexy, playful, feral and free. She’s … vibrating at the highest level when summer comes around.” 

A second escape, then: from the icy tundras of the great white palette cleanser to the white-sanded shores of New Zealand, where Lorde was born and raised. A proper escape this time. A homecoming. If Melodrama was about staying – long after the party’s subsided – then Solar Power is about leaving a party that was never really that good in the first place. When the going gets tough, the tough go home. When the glare of the spotlight gets too blinding – when you start having “nightmares from the camera flash”, as Lorde recounts on album opener “The Path” – you retreat back to safety, to blissful obscurity at the ends of the Earth.

“Summer slipped us underneath her tongue,” Lorde sang on “The Louvre”, one of Melodrama’s highlights that bottles the brain-tingling obsession of a new crush. Back then, four years ago, summer still felt like an uncontrollable presence, a sweaty, fleeting glimpse of euphoria that ebbed as fast as it was alchemised. But Solar Power is an album of permanent summer. The chase is won. The adrenaline is gone. In its place is a hazy, Xanaxed glow where features on the horizon are barely distinguishable; where the cicadas and the waves – samples of which feature throughout the album, courtesy of producer and pop tycoon Jack Antonoff – melt into one unified hum. If you close your eyes, it might sound like the collective “om” of a yoga class awash in white linens.

All of this makes for a less immediately gripping listen than Lorde’s previous work, though – to be sure – this is intentional on her part. In the same way that a guided meditation should be anything but titillating, Lorde goes to great lengths to prove her own disinterest in producing anything that might be considered a hit. On a line from “The Path” that many have held up as the album’s manifesto, she smiles: “If you’re looking for a saviour / that’s not me”, elongating the “a” of “saviour” so much that it becomes an exuberant cry to the heavens. Meanwhile, she bids farewell to the career she could’ve had on “California”: “I don’t miss the poison arrows / Aimed directly at my head.” And – echoing Taylor Swift’s image rehabilitation in 2017, when she ousted her younger self via a murderous, much-memed punchline – Lorde lays to rest her darker, brooding past on “Oceanic Feeling”, trading “cherry-black lipstick” for cherry-topped concoctions, sipped beachside in vintage bikinis.

As if hammering the transformation home, Solar Power is stripped of the frenetic synths and stuttering rhythms that galvanised both Melodrama and, to an extent, her debut record Pure Heroine. Instead, it’s soaked in an acoustic sound bath that a past Lorde would’ve dismissed (“I’ve historically hated guitars,” she tells the NYT’s Diary of a Song), and the album sees her paying homage to the boardwalk buskers and sun-bleached forebears of a different era – Natasha Bedingfield, Sheryl Crow and, as she admits in the same interview, Len’s “Steal My Sunshine”. The palette of Solar Power is unmistakably yellow: it’s the yolky two-piece she wears in the “Solar Power” music video; it’s the palette of Mad Men’s closing scene, Jon Hamm’s third eye fully open as he retreats from cutthroat agency life to a new-agey paradise in Big Sur; it’s the palette of Mike White’s cult show Enlightened, where a corporate exec on the warpath returns as a blissed-out, born-again environmentalist after a stint at a Hawaiian wellness centre singing kumbayas at golden hour. It’s also the palette of another Mike White work – current series du jour The White Lotus, which intentionally ramps up its perma-yellow saturation to toxic levels, limning its titular resort in sickly, jaundiced hues.

These are satirical depictions of whiteness, wealth and privilege: their characters turn to the tropics for absolution – and escape – from prickly pasts, as if sunlight alone could disinfect their sins, even as ugliness returns to rear its head amid that sand and salt. Not that Lorde’s past is anywhere near as dark, but it’s difficult to view Solar Power without some degree of healthy suspicion. It’s clear that Lorde conceives of the album as a work of high parody, a lavish laceration of “spirituality, pseudo-spirituality, wellness, pseudo-wellness”, as she says in a press statement. But where does the earnestness end and the satire begin? Is she the satirist here or its subject?

Case in point: “Mood Ring”, a single that takes aim at the Goop-ification of health culture, only to ignore Lorde’s own complicity in espousing a bit of sunlight here, a spot of unplugging there, as the cure-all to our modern woes. Or Solar Power’s religious invocations – including a cheeky self-description as a “prettier Jesus” on the title track, and a plea for a “Leader of a New Regime” on the song of the same name – which lose their humour when combined with recent live performances where white-clothed jam-band performers surround their very own cult leader: Lorde herself. I have no doubt of the satirical intentions behind these choices, but, to me, they read too straight, too muted to achieve the desired effect. Without enough campy hyperbole, the distinction between self-awareness and self-indulgence becomes slippery.

Such is the dilemma at the heart of Solar Power, an album that wants it both ways: to allow the artist to retire into anonymity, but also to introduce a new, supposedly anonymous persona to the world – how happy she is now that she’s free, how wryly she can critique our societal ills. It’s the New York Times exec struggling to maintain some veneer of relatability even as they gaze out at pools and ocean views. It’s the social media addict who makes a post about deactivating, then watches the support roll in. It’s an escape to paradise, only to face the same pressures of old: talk-show interviews, tour dates, the towering deluge of online discourse undammed the very second a new record drops.

Among it all, there is one glimpse where Solar Power marries together its contradictory impulses for a brief, astounding interlude. In the closing moments of “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All)”, a new voice enters the fray. Lorde disappears, yielding to Swedish pop pioneer Robyn, whose crackly cameo mimics a flight attendant: “Your emotional baggage can be picked up at carousel number two,” she deadpans over a gauzy guitar. “When we’ve reached your final destination, I will leave you to it … We can go look at the sunrise by euphoria, mixed with existential vertigo.” Droll and absurd, she perfectly conjures the comedown of reality, the ecstatic buzz of a temporary diversion curdling into a familiar malaise. Everyone might be leaving, but can we ever really escape?

Michael Sun

Michael Sun is a film and music writer from Sydney whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, ABC Arts and VICE.

Lorde in the film clip for “Solar Power”. Source: Universal Music / YouTube

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