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The Reintroduction of Lorde, Reluctant Royal

Solar Power is honest; its truths just feel cloistered and distant sometimes. Photo: Lorde

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In 2013, the first time we heard Lorde’s voice creeping up scales like beachside waters rising at dusk in her debut single “Royal,” two qualities stuck out: her snarling dismissal of celebrity culture — born out of time spent in her quaint New Zealand bayside community of Devonport, just a ferry ride away from Auckland — and her tone, at once inviting and bewitching, half-whisper and half-snarl. “Royals” was a call to arms for the children of a new-rising generation to set aside the mundane concerns of the previous ones, the pining for things out of their reach and the ill-advised trust in the goodness of privileged gentry. “That kind of luxe just ain’t for us,” the 16-year-old sneered. “We crave a different kind of buzz.” She meant it; as the tour for her debut album Pure Heroine graduated from small clubs to festival and amphitheater stages, Lorde adopted a costume and a demeanor that ran counter to the pop-star aspirations her songs seemed to point to, dressed in black pantsuits and dark cherry lipstick, dancing like no one was looking. She moved like a high-school baby goth, enticed by the darkness and suspicious of the well-adjusted, bored of clout and theatrics. She disappeared the very instant she could.

The disinterest in the trappings of fame expressed in her debut single has followed Lorde through the rest of her career. On 2017’s exquisite Melodrama, she made a run for it, holing up with Bleachers front man and producer-to-the-stars Jack Antonoff and breaking from the anthemic choruses and darkly pretty Joel Little beats of Heroine. Cuts like “Writer in the Dark,” a stark piano ballad with a lilting chorus, suggested the singer-songwriter had gone poking around the Kate Bush catalog, and the pained, personal “Liability” was a breakup tune you could also read as an indictment of the finicky nature of fandom: “The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy / ’Til all of the tricks don’t work anymore / And then they are bored of me.” She let Max Martin hear what would eventually become the bubbly album opener and lead single “Green Light” and then told everyone the pop-song whisperer had criticized her form in the studio, calling the track an instance of “incorrect songwriting,” a charge that didn’t stop the single from charting respectably throughout Europe, Canada, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Again, Lorde’s moves post-release spoke volumes. When the Melodrama tour wrapped, so, seemingly, did any interest in being a public figure. She deleted her official Twitter and Instagram accounts, opting to speak to fans through intermittent letters sent via email newsletter and the occasional onion ring review. She visited Antarctica and planned a book of photos documenting the trip. She announced and delayed new music to mourn the loss of her dog Pearl.

This summer, Lorde broke her silence to prepare her fans for the start of a new era: “There’s someone I want you to meet,” she wrote in a dispatch from her newsletter in June. “Her feet are bare at all times. She’s sexy, playful, feral, and free. She’s a modern girl in a deadstock bikini, in touch with her past and her future, vibrating at the highest level when summer comes around.” It wasn’t clear whether she was presenting a new song or a new persona when the pastel threads, alternative dance grooves, and beach blanket reveries of “Solar Power” arrived. Listeners compared both the song and video to tampon and antidepressant ads, inspired by similarities to motivational U.K. pop smashes like Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” (and the use of songs like that in ads selling mundane items like shampoo) and the strange sensation of Lorde having fun. She’s rarely seemed much at ease in her own videos, not in the smirking insouciance of “Royals,” the bathhouse huddle of “Team,” or even the beaches and grass stalks of “Perfect Places.” The euphoric SUV dance sequence in “Green Light” and the fleeting moment of tea and repose in “Perfect Places” are striking because Lorde scans as a serious writer’s writer and an “old soul,” a title we bestow on bookish kids who neglect to deliver on the childlike mischief we expect from them.

With “Solar Power,” Lorde seemed anxious to shatter our expectations, to communicate that she isn’t and maybe never was the figure many assumed she was. She doesn’t live her life pouting in dark clothes or worrying about whether a single charts. She isn’t even necessarily interested in being a pop star, a point made in the rollout for Solar Power, her third album, and the notable lack of a textbook Lorde banger, that winning blend of propulsive hip-hop drums and slow-swelling synths cresting at the chorus of a song like “Homemade Dynamite.” If the release of the title track turned heads, the quiet and exquisite “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” a morbid weed spiral disguised as a folk song, drew questions, as did “Mood Ring,” a send-up of crystal moms, astrology lovers, and wellness culture (that sounds like a Tiny Desk rendition of one of the old hits). In the “Mood Ring” video, the waterfront party scene of “Solar Power” has taken on a cultish air, and Lorde’s hair has gone platinum blonde as she participates in rituals alongside women in matching tea-green outfits. The reversal is jarring; the beach is not just for lounging around with friends. It’s also a site where humans have convened with nature and practiced spirituality since time immemorial. (But is “Mood Ring” satirizing the woo-woo asceticism of entities like Goop or tracing the roots of wellness as a lifestyle back through human history? Is it coming from a place of snark or from genuine empathy?)

Solar Power is a record about escaping the tendrils of social media and modern tech and dropping out in the Timothy Leary sense. Opener “The Path” seats us at the scene of the 2016 Met Gala, where Lorde appeared with a broken arm and famously got several celebrities to sign her cast. The verses revel in the singer’s newfound freedom from such engagements. The chorus tells the listener to start expecting a little less from someone who doesn’t always take calls from her own record label: “If you’re looking for a savior / Well, that’s not me / You need someone to take your pain for you? / Well, that’s not me.” Better to look to the skies for assistance than to burden a pop singer with the weight of the world’s problems, the song advises. It’s a wild lyric, to assume anyone is looking for a savior in Lorde, but our bar for success for her is steep. Melodrama is something of a classic among a certain set of admirers. Most people will never know what it’s like to make an album so beloved that they feel boxed in by its greatness; many lack the means to stop answering calls and admire the sky instead. “The Path” sets the pace for the rest of Solar Power, where nearly every song blows in on a hushed vocal and an acoustic or gently picked electric guitar and slowly builds to a noodly, beautiful coda as the singer extols the virtues of ghosting digital life and questing into nature. It’s Lorde’s folk album (following similar excursions from Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey). Like Lana, Lorde is a good study. This music is synthesizing ’60s American counterculture as much as ’80s British alternative dance music, ’90s singer-songwriters, sunny aughts radio pop, modern emo folk, and more. It’s all savvy and pleasant and intermittently quite deep but also resolute in its refusal to deliver the smoky gothic pop people expect from this artist. Instead, Lorde wants us to know why she got scarce and how to follow.

A palpable dissatisfaction with the transactional nature of success is a major theme here. We’re invited to visit moments in Lorde’s public, professional life and to feel how much they flustered her privately. Inside the Egyptian-themed Met Gala scene in “The Path,” the singer seems to find the spectacle spooky. Later, “California” takes us to the stage at the 2014 Grammys, where Lorde bested Bruno Mars and Katy Perry for Song of the Year and got a hug from Carole King: “Once upon a time in Hollywood when Carole called my name / I stood up, the room exploded, and I knew that’s it, I’ll never be the same.” This doesn’t excite her: “I don’t miss the poison arrows aimed directly at my head.” (You get the sense that she’d make herself even harder to reach if she didn’t think it would hurt the visibility of her music. “I come back and perform these duties because I believe in the album,” the singer told the New York Times, explaining what it takes to draw her out of seclusion.) She’d rather focus on the airy, quiet, and light moments she’s found since going off the grid than sit too long with memories. Memories hurt. The sting of losing her dog is palpable. She’s getting over a breakup with an unnamed ex. In the past, these experiences might color an entire work. Here, they’re crowded by a list of reasons why it sucks being famous, why it’s better to simply throw your phone into the ocean and reroute the boundaries between your personal and professional lives.

That can make some of this music feel tonally disorienting. The tension between the cloying pep of “Solar Power,” the intentional emotional distance of “The Path,” and the volcanic angst of breakup songs like “The Man with the Axe” and “Dominoes” introduces an unevenness to the album. “California” doesn’t add much to the endless expanse of songs about Hollywood vapidness. “Mood Ring” brings ideas to the table, but its character’s lack of momentum is mirrored in the knockoff Jack Johnson grooves setting the mood. “Mood Ring” and “Solar Power” are uniquely frustrating in the placidness and rehashed sounds underfoot since Solar Power is most fun when Lorde ventures outside her comfort zone. It’s a headphone record. It wants you to lean into feathery acoustics, to luxuriate in the delicacy of its layers. It wants you to wander into the weeds and away from your bearings. “The Man with the Axe” rides ephemeral slowcore riffs to a psychedelic romp you’d sooner hear from Wilco, and “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” takes after the folk-pop-jam mélange powering Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride, as do others on Solar Power (though, to be fair, both albums share an interest in hippie history). In “Dominoes” and “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” the negative thoughts are offset by gorgeously interwoven guitar lines. Jack Antonoff is a gifted player. Malay is notable here, too: Frank Ocean, another artist he works with, has traced a similar path from mainstream radio hits to a quieter and more personal sound from Channel Orange to Endless and Blonde. Although a few songs take a good bit of time to start to cook, and a few of the others seem disinterested in cooking at all, there are always fascinating textures to latch into in this music. This is also true of the singing, which Lorde shares with a crew of backing vocalists that includes Clairo and Phoebe Bridgers (sage choices, as they, alongside Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, scratched our itch for wispy vocals in Lorde’s break years) and some spoken word from Robyn (“Secrets From a Girl”) for good measure.

Slip “Big Star” onto a playlist next to “Halloween” off Phoebe’s Punisher, or schedule “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” alongside “Gasoline” off Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III, and you start to hear Lorde contending with changes in the musical landscape since her last album, whose woozy blend of euphoric pop bangers and cutting, claustrophobic ballads helped clear a path for the breakthroughs that followed. Solar Power feels transitional, like a reset. Lorde is pulling away from the pressures of baring her soul every time she steps out, fighting off perfectionism with music that affects a looseness and playfulness. (The lyrics are too involved for any of this to have come off the cuff, though. The album’s opening couplet — “Born in the year of oxycontin, raised in the tall grass / Teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash” — is delivered with a poet’s intention, water under the bridge, perhaps, when you were raised by a writer.) She’s getting things out of her system. She has a message to impart to the world. It’s expressed luridly in “Fallen Fruit,” a plaintive song about coming to terms with the reality that the climate catastrophes science teachers warned about in school might happen in our lifetimes. It’s here that Solar Power flexes its handle on the late ’60s art and culture Lorde confessed to studying to prime herself for making this album. Here, hope and impending doom rub elbows, like bedfellows, as they did decades back, when youth culture and political activism moved millions but titans of movements in arts and social justice were lost in the fracas.

We’re experiencing similar trauma in this decade, and it’s a natural response to want to lead the charge back to nature, to be eagle-eyed about our ideological diets at a cultural moment where it looks like our attention is as valuable as our money. It’s easy to lose the plot now, too, to get bogged down by content that doesn’t elevate our consciousness, to fall into a trajectory that ends in darkness and violence. Lorde spent much of this rollout voicing contentment in being out of step with the internet and the radio, but this album couldn’t have landed at any other point in history. Solar Power fits rather neatly into the landscape of entertainment in 2021, where films and shows like The White Lotus, Nine Perfect Strangers, and Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar explore the interior worlds of white women as they seek respite from stress at resorts; where their sense of nobility is challenged by their selfishness; and, in the cases of Lotus and Strangers, where comfort and apparent wealth call the urgency of these characters’ woes into question. Solar Power is light on this sense of perspective. One of the best weapons in Lorde’s literary arsenal is melodrama. She can make a breakup sound like the end of the world; she can make winning a Grammy seem mystifying and stressful. Here, she’s getting nicked by her own blade. Solar Power is honest; its truths just feel cloistered and distant sometimes. Lorde used to tell us she could never be a royal. Here, she truly sounds like one.

Correction: An earlier version of this post implied Max Martin produced “Green Light.” We regret the error.

The Reintroduction of Lorde, Reluctant Royal