Review Summary: Lorde, On The Beach
My favorite bit of 2021 music writing, so far, is by Larry Fitzmaurice, written for his newsletter and discussing “Pop’s New Emotionalism”. To make a long story short, Fitzmaurice argues that “more than any other point in the last twenty years, the many levels of visible artists that make up pop music in 2021 are awash in the language of trauma, pain, and healing”. He then traces this trend back to what he believes are its modern roots in Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blonde
and its explosion in the pop world the following year, but you can read the piece yourself if you’re interested in that. Fitzmaurice, however, near the end of the piece, discusses the reception of the first couple Lorde singles (the full album had not yet been released at the time he wrote the piece) describing it as “a collective reaction that can only be described as turning one’s back on the contemplative contentment the songs reflect.”
Now that Solar Power
has been out in the world for a bit, I’d go a step further and posit that its near-universal rejection marks the beginning of the end for “Pop’s New Emotionalism” in the way Fitzmaurice describes it, or, at least, the moment where the critical and commercial public draws its line in the sand concerning how much they’re willing to take. Or maybe the line in the sand had already been drawn, and we’re just crossing it for the last time. Fitzmaurice compares the reception of Solar Power
to that of Taylor Swift’s Reputation
, and I think the two share a similar template. Pop star follows up populist-leaning-but-also-critical darling record (for Swift 1989
, for Lorde Melodrama
) with one that takes a more self-mythologizing bent and combines it with a fairly radical sonic departure, also picks a really weird first single: backlash perhaps not unexpected.
But there’s something else to the Solar Power
reception I can’t quite put my finger on, a fairly hostile reaction to the album’s whole “vibe” that seems specific to, for lack of a better phrase, “these times”. Like, I feel pretty confident that if this record had quickly followed up Melodrama
back in 2018, it would have been positively, albeit maybe not rapturously, received as “the self-growth bops we didn’t know we needed” or some ***. What’s especially odd to me is the seemingly standard critical line that O’Connor (I’ll use Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s last name interchangeably with “Lorde” from here on out) is coming off as sanctimonious or smug on Solar Power
, a rich white twentysomething lecturing us
self improvement. Frankly, I’d say that’s more the audience’s problem than O’Connor’s. Melodrama
(which, to be candid, I didn’t like nearly as much as most) was a rich white teen regaling us
late-teen angst, many just happened to find the experiences and feelings she was talking about to be universally applicable. Ostensibly, most of those same people have also hit their mid-20’s and tried to start drinking less or taken up meditation or a regimen of SSRI’s or dropped acid and communed with nature in an attempt at self-actualization. It’s just a lot less romantic and more esoteric of an experience to try and connect with—kind of in tune with the adage that your dreams are always less interesting to other people than they are to you. I also think there’s something to be said for how a change in our parasocial relationships to big celebrities post-COVID (thinking of Gal Godot’s monstrous “Imagine” video specifically) might factor into all of this, but I’ll never get to why I like the album if I keep going on about that.
I keep returning to Solar Power
because, setting the idealistic title track aside, I find the overall vibe here is more one of “searching
for self-contentment” as opposed to “basking in
self-contentment”, the searching being materially different and markedly more interesting. Getting older is a theme that pops up again and again on these songs, and on “The Man With the Axe” O’Connor mopes “I guess I’ll always be this way/swallowed up by the words and halfway to space”. Later, with the aid of psychedelics on “Fallen Fruit”, she wrestles with climate change and the resulting Big Questions: “How am I supposed to love what I know I am going to lose?” Lorde clearly is wrestling with what being a Pop Star means these days, too—on “The Path”, she beseeches the listener, “If you’re looking for a savior/well, that’s not me”. Later, on “Leader of a New Regime” she openly fantasizes about someone taking her place.
I get it, that paragraph isn’t going to convert a Solar Power
hater into thinking all of this is especially novel. But I think about early last summer, during the height of American COVID-lockdowns, when I got really into Neil Young’s On the Beach
. There’s some surface-level DNA shared with this: the preoccupation with the environment, a harkening back to “the old folky days”, the beachy album covers, of course. But more crucially, I remember telling my Young superfan friend that I was getting into On the Beach
and having him, in a positive way, describe the record as “narcotized”. I think there’s a place for that in pop music: sedate, contemplative songs that choose to look inward as opposed to explicitly reaching a hand out to the listener with more explosively emotional lyricism.
The music of Solar Power
is definitely narcotized. I’ll admit it takes a few listens to get past the initial layers of muted guitar and breezy, vaguely breakbeaty drums. But I find more interesting sonic tidbits to latch onto the more I dive in: the eerie vocal harmonies on “California”, the weird flute on “Fallen Fruit”, the fact that O’Connor’s dunks on some middleaged cokehead-turned-quasi-spiritual-dude on “Dominoes'' are surrounded by a plucky guitar riff that directly recalls Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again”. And it’s never going to hit the Billboard Hot 100, but the deep-cut “Big Star” is one of Lorde’s most alluring love songs, although I’ll admit I’m a sucker for the whole “no baby, YOU’RE the actual celebrity” conceit (see also Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi”).
I’m not going to pretend everything works. “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All)” has the gall to pretend it's vaguely YA platitudes are revelatory material, although ironically, it’s maybe the most universal song here—when you’re 24 it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking the fact that you no longer wake up hungover every day is a sign of real adult progress. That Robyn bit that concludes the song is sickeningly saccharine, too (I just bring it up to point out that her “Dancing On My Own” is a spiritual forebear to the “pop emotionalism” discussed earlier). And “Mood Ring”, while its lyrical mechanism of a young rich girl trying to fill her emotionally empty inside with various wellness trends is conceptually interesting, ends up dulling O’Connor’s formidable authorial capabilities with a patina of flimsy satire.
But I think there’s more depth here than most reviews are giving credit for, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some reevaluation down the line. O’Connor could easily end the album closer “Oceanic Feeling” with her declaration that “I just had to breathe out and tune in”. But in a coda she undercuts herself, asking “Oh, was enlightenment found? No” and staring at a beach pyre, fantasizing about self-immolation. She’s realized that once the fire of your teens burns out, the work begins of sifting through the ashes and figuring out through what remains.