Both Pure Heroine (2013) and Melodrama (2017), the debut and second albums from the New Zealand singer Lorde, were incandescent. Featuring bold synths and ultra-pop melodies, the first explored youth and critiqued material culture, while the second was a study in solitude, told through the story of one night on the cusp of adulthood. Those records, the first of which was released when Lorde (real name Ella Yelich-O’Connor) was just 16, marked the artist out as one of the most fearless voices in pop.
That acclaim – and with it the pressure to force herself out and into the light at every opportunity – weighs on Lorde’s third record, Solar Power. (It’s no small coincidence that the latest album from Billie Eilish, who also found immense pop success in her teen years, also dwells upon the harsh realities of life in the limelight; fame does not treat young women well.)
Sonically, Solar Power is more subdued than Lorde’s previous work. Here, acoustic guitars replace brash synths; the sound is sun-dappled and sandy between its toes, reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash. But Lorde’s deft self-awareness remains: “Teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash,” is how she describes herself on placid album opener “The Path”, over gentle guitar and flutes. The instrumental sound is twee, reminiscent of a filmic overture, and is matched by Lorde’s notably high vocal register, far removed from the rolling deep she played with for many of Melodrama’s best moments. The song explores the artist’s preference for privacy in a world where she has a very public profile. “Now if you’re looking for a saviour, well that’s not me,” she clarifies, as the track, now made buoyant by prominent drums, takes the line as a refrain. As soon as she has made it clear that despite her fame, she has no desire to be anyone’s idol, she relaxes a little. The Lorde who ends this song sounds freer than the one who started it.
The announcement of a record named Solar Power – and the news that Lorde would not be releasing CDs, instead producing what she is calling a “music box”: “Something that symbolised my commitment to asking questions of our systems, and making stuff with intention and sensitivity” – led fans to wonder whether the album would be the first pop record to address the climate crisis head-on. It isn’t. But Lorde, who while writing this album spent much of her time in the beaches and gardens of Auckland, New Zealand, is very much attuned to the power of the natural world, and encourages us to be aware of its sensibilities. The title track is an easy, intoxicating ode to the sun. On “Oceanic Feeling”, she asks, “Can you hear the waves and the cicadas all around?” On “Big Star”, she coyly hopes “the honeybees make it home tonight”.
The only track that really grapples with the human destruction of the environment is “Fallen Fruit”, the lush vocal harmonies of which are emotionally redolent of those in Haim’s “Hallelujah”. Here, Lorde is joined on vocals by indie-pop stars Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo, as well as Marlon Williams and James Milne (who performs as Lawrence Arabia), and together they sing to “the ones who came before us” – previous generations that wreaked havoc on the planet. They imagine walking through a devastated landscape, “where the apple trees all grew”, where they are left “dancing on the fallen fruit”. The chorus features strummed guitar, mellotron and Wurlitzer, played by Lorde’s co-writer and co-producer Jack Antonoff (who also worked on Melodrama), which together lend a divine, psychedelic quality to proceedings. There’s a cautious wistfulness here, a strange nostalgia for a past that has not yet passed, which is, in the tender, perceptive hands of Lorde, beautifully poignant.
Such glimmers of real musical and lyrical intrigue saturated Lorde’s earlier work. On Solar Power, however, they are rare. Much of the album is forgettable: “California”, a song about the surreal A-list life that was opened up to her in LA, and “The Man with the Axe”, about a seemingly older man who “felled” Lorde, “clean as a pine”, rely on indistinct melodies.
Much of Lorde’s warmth, particularly in her love songs, comes from her ability to pull herself back from the brink of cringe at the very last moment. Lyrics – such as in Melodrama’s “The Louvre” or “Supercut” – that nearly veer into cliché instead gleam with an addictive sweetness. It’s a trick she seems to have lost. On “Dominoes”, a loose ditty on which you can hear the sirens that whirled outside as Lorde and Antonoff recorded at Electric Studios, New York, she sings of a former lover. “It’s strange to see you smoking marijuana/You used to do the most cocaine/Of anyone I’d ever met,” she purrs, lamely exaggerating both syllables of “cocaine” atop Antonoff’s guitar.
All is redeemed – for three minutes and 45 seconds at least – on the penultimate track, “Mood Ring”. It is a clever, catchy exploration of the parallels between contemporary “wellness” trends and Sixties hippie culture, and acts as the more astute sequel to “Solar Power”, without losing any of the fun. “Ladies, begin your sun salutations/Transcendental in your meditations,” instructs Lorde over fragments of a guitar riff that glimmers like a sparkler. She looks to her mood ring to tell her how she’s feeling, in doing so transforming something that to many contemporary listeners will be tacky and nostalgic into an object with immense power, or at least the possibility of joy. In the end, there is one simple question. “Watch the sun set, look back on my life,” Lorde sings, her voice pleasingly rough above airy backing vocals, “I just wanna know: will I be all right?”
“Solar Power” is released on Universal Music on 20 Augus