Lorde, though, is hardly alone in this sentiment. It is somewhat remarkable to consider how many pop albums of the past year have taken up the sometimes-debilitating stress associated with modern-day fame as their main theme: Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever,” Clairo’s “Sling,” and Lana Del Rey’s “Chemtrails Over the Country Club” all chronicle their creators’ burnout and consider, to varying degrees, packing it in and quitting the pop game forever. (A similar conversation has been happening with young women in the sports world, too.) It is perhaps not such a coincidence that three of these four albums, including “Solar Power,” were produced mostly by the seemingly busiest producer in the music industry, the girl-pop-Zelig Jack Antonoff.
What keeps much of “Solar Power” from really taking root, though, is that most of these songs are written from the perspective of an enviably serene person snugly on the other side of that struggle. “Dancing with my girls, only having two drinks, then leaving/It’s a funny thing, thought you’d never gain self control,” Lorde sings blithely on one of the album’s more cloying numbers, “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All).” At times, “Stoned” and the otherwise incisive “The Man With the Axe” depict personal growth and maturity as a universal footbridge that one decisively crosses once and for all around age 21, rather than a messy, ongoing, lifelong process of stops and false starts. “I thought I was a genius,” she reflects on “Axe,” “but now I’m 22.” At least wait until Saturn returns, Lorde!
Make no mistake, amber is the color of her energy, at least at the moment. The mood board of her career peak, “Melodrama,” though, contained a whole kaleidoscope of color, and it’s that wonderful album’s sense of contrast and sonic dynamism that’s missing the most here. Every song on “Solar Power” pulls from a similar and finely curated aesthetic — early 2000s “CW”-theme-song pop; sun-drenched ’70s folk; just a pinch of Kabbalah-era Madonna — and rarely draws outside those lines, let alone picks up differently hued crayons. Name-dropped proper nouns too often feel like a pile of signifiers one step away from being shaped into sharper observations. Even the songs that most directly skewer modern-day wellness culture (the spiritual satire “Mood Ring,” the devilishly emasculating “Dominoes”) would not exactly be offensive to the ears if they were played during a yoga class’s savasana.
Perhaps the most stirring moments on the album come toward the very end, at the conclusion of the loose, winding six-minute closer, “Oceanic Feeling.” It’s partially a showcase of the striking, near-photographic clarity Lorde can sometimes achieve with her lyrics (“I see your silver chain levitate when you’re kickflipping”) and a kind of guided visualization of an eventual life after pop stardom. The girl who just eight years ago was asking, however playfully, to be your ruler is now singing with a stirring serenity, “I’ll know when it’s time to take off my robes and step into the choir.”
Even as it has billowed to consider such lofty elements as water, sun and air, Lorde’s close-miked music has retained such a careful intimacy that, at times, you can still actually hear her smiling. But like a beaming Instagram photo selectively chosen from a vast camera roll of outtakes, “Solar Power” stops just short of offering a full, varied range of expressions.