Lorde released her third studio album, “Solar Power,” on Aug. 20. “Solar Power” is a marked shift from the musical identity Lorde has cultivated among her following with her critically-acclaimed albums “Pure Heroine” (2013) and “Melodrama” (2017).
“Solar Power,” according to Lorde herself, is an album indelibly shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. “[L]ockdowns were a big part of Solar Power,” Lorde said in a recent email bulletin. “At home I’d feel emo, trapped, bad about my body, but on ... long aimless walks I could feel the sun on my face.”
It doesn’t embody the polish, the confidence, and the vocal virtuosity of “Pure Heroine.” Simultaneously, it drops the gripping, everyman melancholy of “Melodrama.” Faced with all this, then, the listener might be forced to ask: what does, precisely, “Solar Power” have?
Well, in a word — nothing.
The real fault of “Solar Power,” in truth, is not any sort of self-contained shortcoming. The album is well-produced, musically pleasing, and certainly as summery as its title would have listeners believe. Particularly sunny elements, including an emphatic use of percussion and relatively sparse instrumentation that allows Lorde’s voice to penetrate the songs’ entireties, lend the album a distinctive sound palette and atmospheric tone.
It is merely because “Solar Power” follows on the heels of albums that can reasonably be said to have fundamentally defined pop music during the 2010s that it falls short. “Pure Heroine” takes pop expectations of the era and subverts them like no other, combining unexpected percussive elements, like the cowbell, with the poise and aloofness of Lorde’s distinctively, gorgeously rough-around-the-edges tone. “Melodrama” chafes at itself, reaching the listener with a heart-rending personability that does away with conventional schema — here crafting conventional radio-pop hits with lyrics that scream of loss, there speaking in “Liability” with a frankness that feels incomparably conversational.
These albums, sometimes credited with the rise of a semi-alternative “whisperpop” in the late 2010s, which was itself ascribed to artists like Halsey, late-era Taylor Swift, Troye Sivan, and others, enjoy a level of prestige unseen even by artists who are better known. They draw on jazzy modes, extended cadences, and the generation of tension through delayed resolution, especially at the ends of phrases. Ideologically, there is a courage endemic to Lorde’s work in “Pure Heroine” and “Melodrama,” without which it would have been impossible to push the limits of three-minute pop singles to the extent they were.
Compared to Lorde’s past work, then, “Solar Power” is disappointingly mediocre. Phrases are roundly crafted, cadencing on the tonic more than ever before. Lorde’s singing takes on the largely singular role of being uniformly choral and melismatic.
More than anything, songs in “Solar Power” lack forward motion.
The descending line of the chorus in the song “Solar Power” is frankly exhausting, and “California,” for example, relies on the oscillating motion of just a few chords ad nauseam. Perhaps most concerningly, no song immediately stands out: in my hours and hours of listening to this album, I can pick out very few songs by only their melody and cannot identify them by name without some real, concentrated effort.
Most discouragingly, hints of what make Lorde’s past work so exceptional show through in “Solar Power” as well. So much of “The Path” makes use of mixed-modal writing, including major chords that linger over the piece’s somber introduction with a nuanced, melancholy flavor. When Lorde tells the listener to “Blink three times when you feel it kicking in” in the title track, the synchronization of the line’s lyricism to the percussion of Lorde’s diction feels like a punch to the gut in the best way. “Leader of a New Regime” is particularly beautiful: it delicately blossoms upon itself, first introspectively, then growing into a chorus of sorts that is buttressed by bold chords affirming the multidimensionality towards which Lorde aims to speak.
But before these moments can come into their own, the music actually matching the mood which Lorde seems to want to project, they end.
By her own description, “Solar Power” is all about devotion to the sun. Nevertheless, it feels more like watching the sun through the lens of a television screen, where its rays are seen but not felt. Over her oeuvre’s course, it’s always when Lorde is at her most unpredictable, her most quixotic, that she is at her best. It’s simply a shame that in “Solar Power” such occasions are few and far between.
Aster Zhang is an Associate Editor for The Prospect who writes about music and food, often specific to the Princeton community. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @aster_zh.