When Lorde dropped onto the scene with 2013’s Pure Heroine, she was a strange, dark, enigmatic force. A 16 year old from New Zealand, her signature sound of slow drums and deep beats shook up the music charts (her competition: Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers—even the “Harlem Shake” made it onto the charts). “Royals” signaled an exciting direction for chartable music, one not predicated only on exuberant silliness but that made space for something a little darker, a little deeper, a little quasi-gothy. She was a weirdo before Jughead made the claim, with effortless cool. The heavy, slow beat-and-clap of “Royals” and “Team” became a real thing. It’s not for nothing that literal David Bowie called her sound “the future of music”—and of course, he was right.
With her follow-up album Melodrama, Lorde built on her previous sound and reputation for idiosyncrasy. In a recent article detailing just why Lorde’s music seems so different from contemporary pop music, Time got into the actual structure of her biggest hits, which employ the difficultly-named “mixolydian mode”. As someone who doesn’t understand music theory, this doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, but it essentially means she’s adopting a scale historically used in blues and rock unexpectedly in pop music. Pop is incredibly formulaic (that’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s a successful genre for a reason), but we love Lorde precisely for bucking that formula and still making it work. Think of the song “Green Light”, which shifts to a surprise chord at the pre-chorus (“But I hear sounds in my mind…”), a shift that doesn’t make sense in pop theory but one that gives the song its unsettling power. She is always tightly in control of her sound, sure-footed in her formula-breaking. Melodrama was not as commercially successful as Pure Heroine, but Lorde’s artistic influence carries on in current chart toppers like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish. It’s very hard, for example, to hear the swelling bridge of “drivers license”, with its layered voices and slow claps, and not think of Lorde.
Ok, so we’ve established Lorde’s credentials as a pop icon. So where does Solar Power go wrong? Well, to state the obvious: it doesn’t sound like Lorde. Normally, we look to Lorde for nighttime drive soundtracks, and Solar Power is light and airy. It’s beachy, acoustic guitars and whispery breaths. But that in itself is not an indictment; after all, artists should be allowed to evolve over time, especially ones that debut at 16. I’ve followed one of my favourite bands, the Arctic Monkeys, from their boyish Brit-rock days to their sexy, American-swag days to their slow-jam, space rock days. They do what they want, and I say thank you.
The fault with Solar Power lies beyond a mere change of sound. With Pure Heroine and Melodrama, Lorde keyed into a raw emotional space that serves as the source of her longevity, even after disappearing for four years between each album. We can return to her music again and again, despite the passing years and trends, and feel the same way we did when we first heard it. I don’t want to undersell the emotionality of her music, so I’ll tell a story: the last time I saw Lorde in concert, I cried. Not because I was just so excited to see her—I’m too old to be that kind of fan. But she was singing “Ribs”, or maybe it was “Supercut”, and there was maybe some beer involved, and I had just received a text from a good friend who was moving away, and it all conspired to hit me just right. Funnily enough, that friend had a friend at the same concert, who cried for their own reasons, as did the friend I was with. Just a bunch of fans moved to tears, not because of any real sadness, but just an overwhelming sense of feeling.
Not so with Solar Power. The album lacks an emotional hook, leaving listeners floating unmoored in the oceanic rhythm on which the songs were modeled. Which, to be clear, is what Lorde intended. “I want this album to be your summer companion, the one you pump on the drive to the beach”, she said in a newsletter before the album’s release. But the album feels too slight to make up for that lack of feeling. Floating on ocean waves in peaceful New Zealand is all well and good for Lorde. She’s having a good time! Unfortunately, the rest of us aren’t there with her, and so the album feels out of reach. The emotional relatability, the kind that felt like she was in your head with you, is missing. What we’re left with is just “good vibes”, which feels…pointless?
Look, I don’t want to say that good art only comes from suffering. My issue isn’t that Lorde appears to be happy now (her music was never particularly sad, bar a few songs), but that there’s too much loss between the tonal change and the acoustic change. There’s a moment in “Fallen Fruit” where the tempo stops, her voice drops, and those tell-tale drums tease a return to form, a hint of darkness building. It’s only a fleeting moment, but it’s exciting, and it highlights how much better the album could be if she allowed more of it. But perhaps the biggest surprise is just how derivative the album is overall. Lorde is deliberately referencing past musical styles, but the effect is that most songs remind me of another song—which is new for her music. “Mood Ring” sounds like “Viva Forever” by the Spice Girls mixed with Natalie Imbruglia, “Solar Power” sounds like both Primal Scream’s “Loaded” and George Michael’s “Freedom! ‘90”, and “Fallen Fruit” is very The Mamas & the Papas. These songs aren’t bad (in fact, they’re my favourites from the album. “Mood Ring” stays on repeat). But Lorde doesn’t usually sound like other artists; other artists sound like Lorde. For someone known for having a keen eye on the future, Solar Power puts her curiously in the past.
Solar Power, like just about everything these days, sparked much discourse among the online community, from everything about the production similarities to other albums to the perceived “basicness”. The coolest thing about Lorde, however, is that she patently does not care if she’s cool. She has always done whatever she wanted, unbeholden to any trends, and in that vein, Solar Power is no different than her previous two albums. I just wish it offered more. But even though this one didn’t resonate with me in the way that I hoped, I still can’t wait to see what she does next!