‘Solar Power’: Lorde Embraces Her Inner Hippie — and Makes Fun of Her at the Same Time

It can be a double-edged sword when artists slavishly explain their motive and inspirations for songs: the explanations simultaneously provide helpful context for something that may be misinterpreted, but they also remove all of the anonymity that allows listeners to apply their own connection to subject matter or lyrics. In advance of her album “Solar Power,” Lorde has supplied members of the press with short capsules for each track, and they serve her new material better — and occasionally worse — than it probably deserves; she’s 24 years old now, and she’s gone through not only multiple release cycles but a forced growing-up process in the frequently unforgiving spotlight of public success, so any latitude earned by her past work is inextricably also linked to considerable expectations. 

But even if the increased candor and emphasis on that spotlight may exert a net positive influence on individuals aspiring to follow in the footsteps of artists like her, Billie Eilish and others, it remains relatively unrelatable to the ordinary folk who just want to hear solid pop songs, and more than that, it’s boring. So what Lorde has done with her third full length is somehow pretend that she is post-tabloid attention, pivoting to a summery, holistic view of our literal world that will certainly provide a solid soundtrack to, say, beach excursions and all-girl road trips, but unfortunately adds little that’s new to the current landscape of female singer-songwriters. From “The Path” to “Oceanic Feeling,” “Solar Power” mostly updates formulas that her counterparts and elder stateswomen have used at least since the early 1990s, even if Lorde occasionally delivers a few moments of pop greatness.

“The Path” is the right way for her to start a record, much less this one that arrives after four years, a pandemic and a reckoning of female power and authority that only seems to be building steam. She emphatically shakes off the responsibility of being a role model (“Now if you’re looking for a saviour, well that’s not me”) while offering an oblique portrait of celebrity life (“Arm in a cast at the museum gala… Supermodels all dancing round a pharaoh’s tomb”), eventually hoping that the sun “will show us the path” to something bigger, better or more meaningful. She maintains this bohemian outlook on “Solar Power,” combining feel-good vibes with millennial narcissism, singing “Come one, come all, I’ll tell you my secrets / I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus,” as effervescent multi-part harmonies conjure images of sun-dapple shorelines.

Next, she chronicles her Grammy win on “California,” recalling the moment that Carole King presented her the award that would change her life, but also, catalyze the realization the native New Zealander slowly made that she may not want the celebrity life that accompanied her win. If she doesn’t make it abundantly clear that she’d trade it all for some semblance of normalcy, “Stoned at the Nail Salon” offers a reflection that seems way too world-weary for a 24-year-old, comparing the small town ups and downs that she can never get back to the flash and lack-of-substance of her lifestyle now, singing, “Spend all the evenings you can with the people who raised you / Cause all the times they will change, it’ll all come around.”

Lorde has a lilting theatricality that evokes singers like Aimee Mann, whose lyrics can pierce your heart while being about nothing you’ve ever experienced, and on “Fallen Fruit,” she muses wistfully about dreams that “were far too big” while singing beautifully about “Psychedelic garlands in our hair.” The notes she provided actually point toward an underlying theme of ecological destruction, and an anger at past generations that left future ones to pick up the pieces of an environment they ruined, but all of the beauty she brings to the song still fails to connect the dots between her intent and its ultimate emotional impact. Conversely, she brings such a unique degree of specificity to the intended recipient of “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” that it almost excludes everyone who isn’t a 15-year-old girl from its wisdom, while also sort of hilariously lacking self-awareness from the young woman imparting it with just nine years of perspective, even with a guest appearance from Robyn as a tour guide and flight attendant from Strange Airlines.

And then on “The Man With the Axe,” she offers a love song worthy of her unique talents, cataloguing the little idiosyncratic details that locked in her obsession with the man she loves (“I should’ve known when your favorite record was the same as my father’s / you’d take me down”); the slide guitar and keyboards give it an otherworldly, floating feeling that merges the specific and the universal in a really skilled way. It makes her indictment of another man feel even more stark on “Dominoes,” as she points out his cartoonish contradictions, culminating in the dismissal, “Must feel good being Mr. Start Again.” She completes the triptych with “Big Star,” a song she insists via her “liner notes” is about her late dog Pearl, hinted at on the lyrics (“I’m a cheater, I lie and I’m shy but you like to say hello to total strangers”) but meant to be applicable to the unconditional, all-consuming love a parent has for his or her children; but if she muddles the concept, she conveys the feeling effectively, making for a lovely tribute to anyone special.

“Leader of a New Regime” marks an unexpected digression into the Beatlesque multi-part harmonies of “Because” before the mocking emotional workout of “Mood Ring,” where she satirizes pseudo-wellness from the ‘60s to today. And then she closes with “Oceanic Feeling,” singing over a humming keyboard as she more or less sincerely embraces that same point of view she was just playfully making fun of; it’s clear that this is a perspective that Lorde aspires to embrace, even if she does possess the self-awareness to realize it’s a little bit of a cliché. But then again, the New Zealand singer has experienced just enough of life to offer some perspective on the world without quite learning how to move beyond all of the trappings, good and bad, that she’s as susceptible to as the rest of us.

Ultimately, “Solar Power” feels like it was made for that part of all of us who think we’re better than the domestic indulgences and contemporary clichés we make fun of but secretly aspire to experience ourselves; the fact that she gets to explain herself — to critics, anyway — is a luxury that only a star could really receive, but one supposes that she deserves some extra credit for at least trying to be fully transparent about what’s driving her musical worldview.

Solar Power” releases Aug. 20 on Apple Music.