Review Summary: Lorde's sophomore slump arrives one album late
One of the things that intrigued me most about Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s new album was that it was supposedly fueled by detachment from the fast-paced, internet-driven society which always seems to have us on the edge of our last collective nerve. I removed myself from all forms of social media in 2020, and it is honestly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Aside from obvious things like having more free time, other aspects of my life have improved as well –productivity, patience, blood pressure, mental well-being, etc. While I acknowledge that this definitely isn’t the right move for everyone, I was nevertheless intrigued when I heard that Ella was doing the exact same thing. She dropped off the face of the internet in 2018, trading a life in the cloud for one here on Earth. She visited Antarctica to learn about climate change and then retreated to New Zealand to escape the pressures of being ludicrously famous. As a person I was proud of her for taking such a bold stance, but as a music critic I was nervous to see how all of this would translate to her professional career as a musician. Lorde stated that Solar Power
was to be “a celebration of the natural world, an attempt at immortalizing the deep, transcendent feelings I have when I'm outdoors.” Those are some lofty, admirable goals – and a noble bar to set for one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
The problem is that I don’t get any of that from Solar Power
. The album is awash with loose “vibes” that don’t really invite introspection nor immersion in nature. Instead, the majority of Solar Power
sees Lorde delivering paper-thin accounts of escapism like “goodbye to all the bottles, all the models / back to the clouds in the skies” or “it's a blue day, we could jump Bulli.” These aren’t the transcendent feelings that O’Connor hinted at during the build-up to Solar Power
, they’re more like phrases scribbled on hotel postcards. When I hear this album, I feel like I’m listening to someone describing their vacation to me. Things get decidedly worse when Lorde dips into the “tortured celebrity” well of emotions, which while undoubtedly legitimate will still have a hard time reaching sympathetic ears. With references to luxury island resorts, getting high, and running from the press, it doesn’t exactly ooze the same kind of universal truths that Melodrama
seemed to at every turn.
Despite the lyrical pitfalls, Solar Power
still could have been a decent summer pop record if every fiber of its being didn’t fight that exact niche. While they’re very different records, Solar Power
actually reminds me a bit of Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever
– but only in the sense that they both seem to reject the spotlight while espousing anti-pop sensibilities. In Billie’s case this transformation was out of spite, in Ella’s case it was born out of a need for respite. Eilish’s efforts panned out not only because her sarcastic demeanor complements being anti-anything
so well, but also because she fully and willingly embraced the concept. With Solar Power
, Lorde seems less committal. Instead of departing from pop to create a real folk record influenced by nature, she opted for a halfway point between Lana Del Rey and Colbie Caillat. There are lush, dreamy ballads that sound like Norman ***ing Rockwell
b-sides, and there is acoustic pop that sounds like Coco
sans any hooks. All of this coalesces into one amorphous twelve track experience that sounds unanimously, totally agreeably pleasant
. Was that supposed to stick it to the man?
The truth is that there are
things to like here – namely some new percussive elements and O’Connor’s ever-rich voice – but Solar Power
comes across as painfully flat compared to her first two records. I get wanting to reject super fans on Twitter crowning you as their personal savior, or the endless exposure upon all forms of media, or being followed by the paparazzi like a swarm of gnats – but unfortunately this particular set of songs provides us with very few reasons to care about Lorde’s voluntary exile and subsequent journey towards self-discovery. It comes across as stream-of-consciousness complaining, and the silver linings are skin-deep realizations that mostly revolve around ideas like toes-in-the-sand or eyes-towards-the-sky. Worst of all, it eschews the melodic hooks that Lorde is known for without replacing them with anything better. Solar Power
is not a transformation so much as it is a straight regression. Lorde’s behind-the-scenes actions and motives may be admirable – inspirational, even – but unfortunately none of that translated to record here.