On ‘Solar Power’, Lorde Has Finally Seen The Light
Critics and fans will be divided by 'Solar Power' - but its relentless optimism is deeply powerful.
The music of Lorde, the New Zealand pop wunderkind who was called the “sound of the future” by David Bowie, hasn’t historically been synonymous with “fun.”
Sure, there was a delicious depravity to her debut, Pure Heroine, which combined the adolescent aimlessness of Bret Easton Ellis’s fiction with purring, smooth-as-leather beats. And though Melodrama, her breakthrough release, had a sense of catastrophically ambitious decline to it, with songs about loneliness and heartbreak turned up to eleven, the overriding feeling was one of shared isolation.
On both releases, Lorde looked at the world around her and saw devastation, loneliness and heartache. The only way through such a miasma of desperation was to sing about it. And so she did, her purring voice holding listeners up against their worst days and nailing them there.
It was astonishing, in fact, that such downbeat music carved out a position on the radio charts; proof that the culture Lorde sang for was as sick of watching futures evaporate as the singer herself was.
Given that the world has only gotten bleaker in the almost five years since Melodrama dropped, one could be forgiven for expecting that Solar Power, her recent release, would be another serve of the same desperation. But the record is a total tonal left-turn, a refutation of the darkness and a glorious embrace of sunshine. It is, against the odds, a trembling serve of hope; a piece of sun-kissed optimism from a singer-songwriter who has finally seen the light.
Hope Against Hope
Don’t be mistaken: there is still sadness here. ‘Stoned at the Nail Salon’ calls to mind the romanticised melancholy of Lana Del Rey, while ‘Fallen Fruit’ is a shivering paean to the way that the world forces you to adjust your expectations. “We had no idea the dreams we had were far too big,” Lorde croons, reverb-saturated guitars forming over her words like moss.
But rather than saturating herself in hopelessness, Lorde chooses to believe, against the odds, that the world can get better. This time around, her poetry is on a micro, rather than macro level, a listing of tiny daily pleasures that accumulate into something like optimism. ‘Solar Power’ is the clearest proof that the singer has found hope against hope, its Jack Johnson-esque guitar chords forming like a thick layer of skin. Winter might be eventual, but time and time again, Lorde encourages her listeners to feel the sun on their face; to refuse to let the passing of all things be a bad thing.
Change is the thrumming machine at the record’s heart.
Indeed, change is the thrumming machine at the record’s heart. With gentle regularity, Lorde submits herself to the way that the world evolves and expands, not out of fear or trepidation, but from a place of steadfast joy. ‘Dominoes’ is a tribute to the way that the human being can re-describe themselves, filled with lines about new phases and new partners, while ‘Mood Ring’ emerges out of a sea of voices with a reminder that the passage of time doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “I’m trying to get well from the inside,” Lorde sings, submitting herself to a new way of living with her hands outstretched in front of her. Not even music stays the same. “All the songs you loved at 16 you’ll grow out of,” the singer promises on ‘Stoned at the Nail Salon’.
These are important messages in a time defined by catastrophic change. The world might be altering in increasingly horrific ways every single day, but Lorde is here to remind you that you still hold onto some autonomy — that you can offer yourself up to the zig-zags of the world while remaining true to some shining sense of power, even in the face of powerlessness.
Nostalgia Can Free You
This source of power, Lorde suggests, comes both from the past and a deep embedding with the present. Solar Power is filled with reminders of mindfulness; with exhortations to stay in the moment. ‘Big Star’ grips onto the “perfect Summer” even as it acknowledges that this too will pass, while ‘The Man With The Axe’ submerges itself in the beauty of a relationship that sits on a pivot point.
This combination of nostalgia and deeply held presentism is reflected in the music as well as the words, dappled choruses that call to mind everything from The Beatles to Carole King to Donovan. Lorde has never so clearly worn her influences on her sleeve, diving back deep into a long lineage of pop artists who guided the world towards shafts of sunlight even during the hardest times. She is, for the first time in her career, not alone, sacrificing uniqueness for membership of a group of optimists that stretch all the way back into the past.
All these new directions might be difficult for some dyed-in-the-wool fans to accept. Indeed, so far critical appraisals of the record have been divided, with some feeling as though Lorde has fallen back onto old cliches and time-worn melodies. But the joy of Solar Power is the way that it breathes new life into even the most basic of sentiments; a stunning reclamation of hoary old phrases, like a new lacquer of varnish applied to an ancient set of drawers.
This is the past redrawn by an artist who has only ever followed her own desires, a fusing of the contemporary and the nostalgic that serves as stunning tribute to the way that you can make even the oldest myths your own. Bowie was right. Lorde really is the sound of the future. Only, this time, she has broken new ground by returning to old ground; doubling back in antic circles while the sun peeks gently through the clouds, blessing all that it touches.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.