I was looking forward to disliking Solar Power. Hating it, even.
When the title track of Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s third full-length was unleashed to the interwebs smack dab in the middle of summer 2021, I couldn’t remember being so disappointed by my favorite artist’s lead single in … forever. It felt so slight, sounded so undercooked, and came across just a tad too uninspired. And it certainly lacked the sense of movement that had come to characterize Lorde’s oeuvre.
With a title like “Solar Power,” I legitimately expected a call-to-arms, a manifesto on the climate crisis, or just a big pop moment. So imagine my disapproving look upon learning that the song was basically about … hitting the beach with your homies.
What really tipped me over the edge, though, was her appearance on Hot Ones. For some reason, I had presumed Lorde to be an enlightened vegan; in short, for years, I basically pictured her as the Greta Thunberg of pop music. By this point, I had made a vow to myself that I would only fully champion out-and-out vegan musicians (and there are actually many of them if one cares to dig deep). A crappy lead single and an even crappier lifestyle choice? That’s a double whammy for me, thank you very much. Take your naked ass elsewhere, Ella.
In the months leading up to Solar Power, I made my thoughts and feelings known: on Facebook, Instagram, private WhatsApp chats with fellow pop music aficionados. “I’ll stream the album anyway,” I would say. “But I can’t see myself really getting into her or her stuff anymore the way I did with Pure Heroine or Melodrama.”
So what changed?
As was the case with the Melodrama rollout, each newly released track had me increasingly intrigued for the album, against my will. When the solemn, understated, and cheekily titled “Stoned at the Nail Salon” premiered, I found myself rather dumbstruck by the line “All the music you loved at sixteen / You’ll grow out of.” Goddamnit, I thought to myself. Throughout the year, I had been grappling with the exact same sentiment, feeling like I had outgrown not only people in my life but also songs and albums that had come to define myself and my taste for so long. And I had not found a song that directly addressed this very specific subject matter – until “Stoned” came along. That it sounded like Lana Del Rey’s “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – but I Have It” on acoustic guitar certainly did not hurt either.
By the time “Mood Ring,” the final pre-album release, came around alongside its PR blurb, I was all the more sold; ironically as reception by esteemed music sites and even those around me who had taken a liking to “Solar Power” grew less and less favorable. There’s something about “Mood Ring” that just hit the spot for me: the clever one-liners on wellness culture and astrology (the “Pluto in Scorpio generation” reference, which refers to those born between 1983 and 1995 like myself, is obviously a win), the very blurred lines between earnestness and satire in the lyrics and the song’s indelible melodic turns, especially the gorgeous vocal harmonies that adorn the chorus.
“Not gonna lie,” remarked a friend and a fellow Lorde fan. “When I first heard “Mood Ring,” I was instantly reminded of M2M,” they added, referring to the Norwegian pop duo that was briefly popular in Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I heartily chuckled at this observation. A point was definitely made.
Nowadays, fashion operates reliably by the 20-year rule, whereby the aesthetic most deeply fossilised into uncoolness, ugliness, and awkwardness begins to seem fresh, subversive, and exciting simply because it has been out of favour for so long. It’s not much of a stretch to apply that mentality to music. […] there can be a point at which epochs once considered “abject” start to “sound charmingly strange.”Rachel Aroesti, The Guardian
When asked about who and what influenced Solar Power, Lorde often name-dropped the Australian singer-songwriter Natalie Imbruglia. As a long-time Natalie Imbruglia fan, this had me gagging, even if slightly. Mostly remembered for her late 1990s acoustic pop jam “Torn,” Imbruglia’s last true-blue hit in the non-US parts of the world was 2005’s “Shiver,” released when Ella was shy of nine years old. Yet perhaps this is what prompted her to pose a seemingly casual yet actually thought-provoking question on “Mood Ring”: “Don’t you think the early 2000s seemed so far away?”
Why yes, I do. That she’s singing that line flanked by swaths of gentle acoustic guitars and unobtrusive percussion, typical of contemporary hits of that exact era, is absolutely not lost on me. Just when I thought the charm of nostalgia had become obsolete, here’s a Zoomer channeling the sound and aesthetic of unheralded breezy, poppy songstresses from my formative years: the Natalie Imbruglias, the Jennifer Paiges, the Nelly Furtados. How was I going to resist?
Solar Power opens with “The Path,” which Lorde has numerously described as the album’s thesis statement. A few seconds into the chorus arrives the gut-smacking announcement: “If you’re looking for a savior / Well, that’s not me.” I gulped at first listen. Point made and duly noted. Gotcha, ma’am. A few numbers down the tracklist, she ups the ante and flat-out inquires, “Won’t somebody… anybody… be the leader of a new regime?” All along, I thought she was up to the task. Yet she isn’t. Was she ever?
I used to pride myself on being a pop music consumer that was “above it”; I would assume that Keegan-Michael Key character to most gay culture/Twitter’s Jordan Peele. There’s nothing worse, I used to think, than taking everything at face value and consuming it unthinkingly. Yet in my own way, I’m prone to committing more or less the same crime by placing Ella on this imaginary pedestal, believing she, too, was above it despite definitely dabbling in the same playing field as the other main pop girls. “I’m not a climate activist, I’m a pop star,” she declared. Yes, of course, she could be both things at the same time. But she doesn’t have to be, especially if she doesn’t want to. Why should I – or anyone, for that matter – subject all these makers of catchy ditties to the highest moral standards? On what basis anyway?
Instead of carrying the burdens of the world on her shoulders and robot-dancing her way to rise above them, Solar Power is basically the sound of a girl, resigned, observing chaos at a global scale in the safety and comfort of her little corner. Instead of trying to outsmart the world she’s in, Lorde is simply basking in whatever goodness there is left around her, holding on to the one true power that’s always certain to light and heal: the Sun. She simply exists. She wants to just be.
And therein lies the brilliance of Solar Power, in its own low-key, unassuming, even lethargic way. Unlike its predecessors, it’s not concerned with a story arc or a sense of grandeur. It’s fully aware that it falls short of its maker’s perceived greatness and yet, somehow, in the current state of our collective existence, it doesn’t really matter anyway. To sum up: it sounds like the first proper product resulting from the ongoing pandemic, the introspection, the melancholy, and the ennui that it entails.
My favorite cut on Solar Power is “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All).” Not unlike Everything but the Girl’s “Mirrorball,” it bridges the soft, delicate line between happy and sad, hope and regret. Where “Mirrorball” concludes its bittersweet rumination with an “It’s never gonna be alright,” “Secrets” finishes with a tender spoken outro by Swedish pop troubadour Robyn. “Welcome to Sadness,” she informs. “The temperature is unbearable until you face it.”
And then what?
“You can stay as long as you need to get familiar with the feeling. And then when you’re ready, I’ll be outside. And we can go look at the sunrise by euphoria, mixed with existential vertigo?” she elaborates, half instructing, half pondering. “Cool.”
I guess let the bliss begin.