Saturday, August 21, 2021

Review: Solar Power • Lorde

By the time someone crests a quarter-century on Earth, life begins to reveal its cyclic nature: Provided all our plans come to fruition or at least resolve to an acceptable alternative, our lifestyles stabilize into a comfortable maintenance pattern as we establish our memorandum operandi for the next 40 years. What was once a longtime home eventually becomes just “Mom’s house,” where cold storage or a new elliptical fill the room our bed once occupied. The homes we’ve chosen and decorated ourselves grow into our preferred address. Many days can feel the same as we begin to fulfill the visions our teenage selves spun into lifelong goals, though they now may be transposed into a more realistic frame. While life can be so good to us, we’re still a bit lost… but by now, we’re just rolling with it. It’s with this headspace alone – one of the meandering yet content 20-something – that the hidden potency of Lorde’s third studio record, Solar Power, can be actualized.

A perception that “Ribs” started and Melodrama underscored, the New Zealand singer-songwriter gained a reputation for inspiring young people to yearn for youth through a nostalgic lens, as if it had already sped past them. “I’ve never felt more alone. It feels so scary getting old,” she sang at just 16 years old on an album that also carried global hit “Royals,” a revolt against the glamourous machine she would soon be expected to enter. Despite her success, she never embraced celebrity culture, instead keeping her relationship with fame on a tight leash. Her guardedness might be why, almost a decade later, Lorde can sound at ease with that 20-something lifestyle – even if she enters the stage in life from a place of privilege, she reconnects with the basics. “But when the heat comes, something takes a hold. Can I kick it? Yeah, I can,” she tells her listeners on "Solar Power" with a wink, signaling a nostalgic acoustic upswing from previous material. The namesake record to follow is stripped to songwriting basics, an unfussy schism from the Lorde we have known to this point.

Popular music resides on a sliding scale: In the past decade, heavy synthesizers, 808s, electric guitars have been the instruments to revive the most prominent musical eras of the three decades prior. After launching a career atop the trendiest sound of peak Tumblr music discovery, Lorde ditches any competency in contemporary pop culture and makes the record she wants – other people’s feelings be damned. Solar Power radiates the essence of underappreciated moments in early aughts music – when pop, rock, and rhythm and blues were blended and pasteurized into universally accessible adult contemporary music – and splashes some psychedelia into the mixer to achieve, as she dubbed it, her “weed album.” “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” could have lifted inspiration out of any given female-led aughts dramedy, right down to a Robyn-performed fantasy airlines safety monologue. She cuts to a more direct sentiment on “Mood Ring,” the most instantly gratifying song here, in which she laments, “Don’t you think the early 2000s seem so far away?” They sure do.

“All the music you loved at 16, you’ll grow out of,” Lorde declares on “Stoned at the Nail Salon.” Maybe that’s true for someone who’s been singing the same teenage musings for almost a decade – a justification that, I guess, could be leveraged for most of this record – but surely her fans won’t recite that line all too often. The blood of her previous work somehow became one with its listeners, nourishing and intensifying their own life experiences. Solar Power, meanwhile, washes away any pop star responsibility through its basis in the opposite side of fame: Within the lulls between record cycles, when grocery stores and the homeland beachside are her venues. “Made it to the island on the last of the outbound planes. Got a trunk full of Simone and Céline and of course my magazines, gonna live out my days. Won’t somebody, anybody be the leader of the new regime?” she asks amid the album’s aimless back half, foreshadowing a far-off retirement with the globe aflame outside her island nation. Who will take her place? Who will lead the world to ensure future prosperity? Who will champion the unspoken? Paranoia rocks her paradise, even if for a minute and a half, before she floats away again.

As it was strung across the sand on those sunny afternoons, this music certainly wasn’t ultraviolet resistant. Emblematic of one long, lazy summer day, its soundscapes are bleached and shallow, while Lorde’s tamed vocal delivery skims across the top of the mix. It would be disingenuous not to note the album’s subtle musicality, sometimes feeling more heat exhausted than sunkissed. For every gleaming highlight, like the textured homage to ‘70s counterculture “Fallen Fruit” or sprawling closing number “Oceanic Feeling,” there is a track that seems to stumble and teeter through its time, especially after it crests its midpoint – a hallmark of either superb restraint or musical underdevelopment, dependent on your perspective. Either way, Lorde doesn't seem to mind from within her own kingdom: Insulated from unnecessary static, she locked down an upcoming (and largely sold-out) world tour to only mid-sized venues and keeps her online presence cradled in the private alcove of a personal email list. In turn, Solar Power reads like a perspective piece from someone content with near nothingness, though only after realizing what it could have been like to have it all – and rejecting it.

Solar Power is available now under Republic Records.

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