Nothing moves up a quarter-life crisis quite like a global climate catastrophe and a pandemic, so Lorde’s is right on time. With Solar Power, she’s right in the thick of it: wearied by teenage fame and capitalism, worried about the state of the earth and grieving the loss of her beloved dog Pearl. To abate the bubbling undercurrent of grief and stress, she escapes to the beachside resort in her mind. It’s the dawn of a new Lorde — dare we say, in her Margaritaville era? — trying to channel her inner chill to mixed results.
The title track led off Lorde’s album cycle, a Jack Johnson-y slice of commercial sunshine pop that embraced some of the lush harmonies of her previous two albums but pivoted far away from the underlying darkness. The rest of Solar Power has the same approach in mind: Clairo and Phoebe Bridgers fill out the background vocals on a mix of Laurel Canyon-esque acoustic cuts and serene ballads. As she promises on “Oceanic Feeling,” her “cherry-black lipstick’s gathering dust in a drawer/I don’t need her anymore.”
Lorde spends a lot of the album shedding her skin. Phones get tossed in the water. She bids adieu to “all the bottles, all the models” and “the kids in line for the new Supreme.” The music she loved when she was sixteen gets left back in New Zealand, probably collecting dust next to the lipstick. She essentially Gone Girl’s herself from her past, taking a sparse few memories with her, like the one of Carole King presenting her with a Grammy Award on “California.” But even her relationship with her own music is fraught: “I thought I was a genius/But now I’m 22, and it’s starting to feel like all I know how to do is put on a suit and take it away/With my fistful of tunes that it’s painful to play,” she admits “The Man With the the Axe.” The ballad itself is a bit sleepy; while there is ambient emotional tension threaded through the album, that doesn’t always translate to the way a song sounds, leaving some of those reflections feeling more whimsical than they probably should.
Meanwhile, those glimpses into her early twenties psyche don’t mesh and often complicate the more satirical moments. “Mood Ring,” which is sonically a highlight and lyrically a miss, is one of the more obvious satires, tackling wellness culture through the lens of Sixties commune life. While a valiant attempt, what it misses is that one of the best parts of Lorde’s songwriting is her incredible earnestness. When that is let loose, like on the absolutely stellar “Oceanic Feeling” and Big Star-esque “Big Star,” she is an unstoppable pop force.
Solar Power largely meanders through the anxiety, a bit of a relatable smooth brain approach to all that’s going on in the world. Lorde admits as much on the album: she basks in the inconclusiveness of her deep thoughts. Even Robyn, who appears at the end of “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” as a flight attendant on Strange Airlines, destination Sadness (quite literally) is not even sure where the tour will take you. (And though always pleasant to see Robyn, imagine the type of sweeping dance floor monster the pair could’ve made in a different part of Lorde’s musical journey!)
The timing of the songwriter’s most inward album yet is a bit funny: we are seeing the impact of her first two albums absolutely dominate popular music. Her influence has left an indelible mark on the likes of Olivia Rodrigo and even Billie EIlish, both of whom hit the same notes on how taxing celebrity can be before they even hit their twenties. We are hearing a version of Lorde everywhere nowadays, but Lorde herself can’t hear any of it with all those seashells pressed to her ears, listening deep for the sounds of crashing waves in the distance. She’s figuring out her life in real time, chipping away at who she is and who she could be through her music. And has enlightenment been found? No, she professes, but she’s trying.