The New Zealand musician was dubbed ‘the future of music’ by David Bowie. But on her third album, she swaps her directness for tuneless detachment
“Come on and let the bliss begin,” chants Lorde on the title track of her third album. “Blink three times when you feel it kicking in.” Alas, I’ve had this collection of heat haze hippy noodlings on repeat for a couple of days now, and I’m still waiting for the promised sonic high. Na verdade, I’m still waiting for more than a couple of discernible songs.
The disappointment of Solar Power feels intense, because Lorde, real name Ella Yelich O’Connor, had set the bar so high that David Bowie thought she was “the future of music”. The New Zealander was just 16 when she sparked and buzzed onto the pop scene in 2013, like a fluorescent light. Her debut album, Pure Heroine was the work of an artist with no interest in flattering the emotions. Instead Lorde used her unique and thrilling manipulation of synths and vocal harmonies to shine hard beams on messy truths. This was a mission she continued with the raw exploration of “the terror and the horror when we wonder why we bother” on her second album Melodrama (2017).
Mas Solar Power finds Lorde swapping her trademark directness for tuneless detachment. Instead of finding fresh new sounds, producer Jack Antonoff has helped her filter trippy 1960s beach vibes through her love of early noughties hits by S Club 7 and Robbie Williams. There’s a nod to George Michael’s “Faith” (1987) in the stubble-strum and booty-shaker beat of the title track, and a sleepy wink at Katy Perry’s “California Gurls“ (2010) on “California”, with its farewell to “all the bottles, all the models” and slightly Tori Amos-ish falsetto leap in the chorus. There’s a little breeze of Natalie Imbruglia in the drive time bop of “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All)”. The palm slap of bongos patter through “Oceanic Feeling”, stirring mild memories of All Saints’ “Pure Shores” (2000) but lacking the old tune’s tidal momentum.
Interviewed by O jornal New York Times, Lorde says she has spent years honing the ambience of a psychedelic summer to make ”a great weed album“. She’s clearly had fun sampling waves and cicadas on her phone and recruiting Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo to add floaty layers of sweet harmony. There are groovy flutes and a rattled tambourine. Despite her long-standing hatred of guitars, she was dealt an ace when fellow New Zealander Neil Finn left his “Lake Placid Blue” 1965 Fender Jaguar in his studio for her. Producer Jack Antonoff makes the vintage guitar sound deliciously cool and fluid: like a Hockney pool. But he lets it burble throughout without really delivering any memorable hooks – until you tune it out like a hotel lobby water feature. It trickles out aimless arpeggios on “Stoned at the Nail Salon” as Lorde sighs over growing out of the songs she loved at 16 and sounds like she’s already bored by the one she’s singing. It’s one of many songs that feel sun-bleached of melody.
Throughout the record, Lorde says she’s delivering “extreme satire” of modern wellness cults of the sort she and her friends find appealing. In the video for “Mood Ring” she dresses up in a blonde wig – a la Gwyneth Paltrow – and takes part in a variety of Goopy pastimes like pretty pebble patterns dressed in designer silk. In breathy tones, she sings of how burning sage and cleansing crystals “can’t seem to fix my mood/ Today it’s as dark as my roots”. But the vocal lacks the bite of satirical conviction or the weight of real sorrow.
Lorde has often spoken of wanting to make music like Joni Mitchell. Solar Power feels like her 21st-century take on The Hissing of Summer Lawns: a 1975 classic on which Mitchell explored the dark underbelly of privileged suburban Californian lives. But where Mitchell spoke deep desperation into her tales of wealthy women hiding spiritual “darkness with a joyful mask”, Lorde just wafts over her pretty, pastichey soundscape without really connecting. More miss than bliss.