New Zealand’s pop princess Lorde shifted the course of Gen-Z pop in 2013 when her inescapable debut single “Royals” led to a cult classic debut record. “Pure Heroine,” however, was where the sixteen-year-old found herself in the same emotional positions as her teenage audience over slower, moodier and more left-field production than her contemporaries. Even eight years later, standout cuts “Tennis Court” and “Ribs” haven’t met their match with songs that better describe the numbed disquietude of her generation and fears of growing up nearly every teenager relates to. Though the vocals and minimal production didn’t fit quite snugly on the radio next to the popular arena-sized pop at the time, fans understood it enough to make 2017’s “Melodrama” the most anticipated album of that year. In a bold move towards maximalism, it made its case for the best pop album of the 2010s upon release, building on the themes of her debut and fitting them into a loose narrative that struck fans and critics as life-affirming.
With her 3rd album, “Solar Power,” the moonlit catharsis of that project has passed through the night, with Lorde switching out her party fits for sun-dresses and swimsuits, opting for sun-kissed adult-oriented pop a-la Natasha Bedingfield, early Nelly Furtado and Sheryl Crow. The result is a somewhat forced summer record dried up by its own sun rays. The closest she comes to her own “Soak Up The Sun” is through the title track, which perfects a formula most of the record failed. Lorde’s loose interpolation of George Michael’s “Freedom 90,” set to an intimate acoustic guitar and a luscious instrumental flourish at the end, is a beach-day invitation dressed up in flower crowns and grass skirts. Citing LEN’s “Steal My Sunshine” as an influence, it’s the summer anthem of 2021. As the lead single, the lyrical themes of nature-oriented escapism found throughout the record make for a perfect introduction, through which Lorde offers ruminations on wellness culture, the climate crisis, fame and secrets from a girl who’s somehow “seen it all” at twenty-four. However, her instrumental focus suffers from a sun glare like a beach-day selfie.
Much of this glare can be traced back to producer Jack Antonoff’s blurry lenses. While recent releases from Clairo, Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, St. Vincent and Antonoff’s Bleachers have garnered him superstar status as a co-writer and creative force, the maximalist magic he helped conjure on “Melodrama” doesn’t transfer to this new sound, which diminishes the power of almost all of Lorde’s lyrical meditations. The existential crisis on “Stoned at the Nail Salon” turns to a passing thought through its comatose guitars and dry harmonies and the introspective love letter and aching vocals on “The Man with the Axe” dissolves like beach sand into a schoolgirl crush over its languorous waves of atmosphere. The sapless psychedelia on “The Path” and “Oceanic Feeling” make a better soundtrack to waiting for a bad edible to hit than a good trip. Occasionally, Lorde and Antonoff strike up a wonderful moment, like “Fallen Fruit,” where Lorde’s haunting lament for an inhabitable Earth places nicely over a slow build of acoustic guitars, bells and ambience. Robyn’s endearing spoken word outro on “Secrets from a Girl” is just enough personality to save the song from the record’s formula. However, save these occasionally lush, instrumentally tasteful moments and you have a record that seems to confuse the summertime euphoria with the dryness of staying out in the sun. It’s the solar sensation of chapped skin under immense heat, every drab arrangement being another hand pressing down onto your sunburnt back. Therefore, it’s no wonder what was supposed to be this summer’s go-to album was released so late in the season: it’s the perfect album to be irritated to as a burning sun overstays its welcome well into October. It has its moments, but the first thing you’ll want to do after you listen is hydrate to “Pure Shores” by All Saints.