“What the fuck are perfect places, anyway?” Lorde asks in the last line of “Perfect Places,” the final song on her 2017 album “Melodrama.” Despite the upbeat pop hooks and infectious beats, the lyrics of “Perfect Places” encapsulate the angst of growing up and finding out that there is no perfect “teenage moment.” In the context of the rest of the album, the title of the closing song seems sarcastic, poking fun at those who expect perfection in an age of turmoil. Lorde left us to ruminate on these lines for over four years before coming back with her third album, “Solar Power,” released on Aug. 20. Despite mixed reviews from critics and fans alike, the album serves as an answer to the questions raised in “Perfect Places.” It seems like Lorde has finally found a way to live without them.
“Now I’m alone on a windswept island,” begins Lorde in the title track “The Path,” painting a dramatic Odyssey-esque scene that recalls her home in New Zealand. After riding the acclaim of “Melodrama,” Lorde has retreated back to her home, away from the “camera flash” and the “museum gala.” Gone are the heavy beats and the deep basses. “The Path” opens with a light piano and guitar intro. The new Lorde floats along the lines instead of pounding on them. The urge to be seen and heard that is so prominent in adolescence has faded to a wistful tone, urging listeners to seek solace in the sun and nature. She builds on this notion of letting go in the second track “Solar Power,” where she describes throwing her phone into the water (you can’t reach her even if you tried). Cleverly alluding to her social media hiatus of four years, Lorde doesn’t seem the least bit apologetic. Rather, she’s ready to spread her new realizations. Tongue-in-cheek, she describes herself as a “prettier Jesus.”
The loose nature of Lorde’s new sound is not easy to adjust to. Her sweet and playful tone might initially come off as cliche. Sung by Colbie Caillat? Sure! But not by Lorde. How do you go from “You said you love the beach/ you’re such a damn liar” in “Green Light” to “Lead the boys and girls onto the beaches/ Come one, come all” in “Solar Power?” Lorde offers some insight on this shift in her third song “California,” which begins playfully, under the guise of a children’s story. “Once upon a time in Hollywood,” she begins, recounting her rise to fame and her eventual departure from the limelight. However, this song leaves listeners dissatisfied. We don’t hear any of the reasons Lorde chose to leave. There’s no heart or climax, just a haunting and sickeningly sweet chorus that sings “Don’t want that California love” repeatedly. From a lyrical powerhouse, this chorus leaves much to be desired. The lack of resolve to explain herself is a flaw of “Solar Power,” which detracts from its otherwise intriguing sound. Fortunately, Lorde saves herself with “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” the most complex and, arguably, beautiful song off the album. Here we see Lorde at her best, reminiscing about her past pop stardom, but eventually feeling content with her current situation. The softness of her voice and her lyrics questioning her current state contrast the edgy and jaded questions of “Perfect Places.” She understands that these “perfect places” we spend adolescence looking for may never materialize, but if we “spend time with the people who raised [us],” we can get pretty close.
Perhaps the most jarring aspect of Lorde’s “Solar Power” is the shift of alignment. For the longest time, Lorde’s lyrics have been synonymous with relatability. The lyrics almost felt like they could’ve been ripped from your high school diary that was hidden under the mattress. The intimacy of songs such as “Liability” and “Ribs” from her sophomore and first album made her a voice of the youth. However, “Solar Power” turns this notion on its head. She comments that the song “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s seen it all)” was actually a response to her relistening to her song “Ribs” from her first album, Pure Heroine. In the song, the listener realizes that Lorde is no longer the lamenting teenager. In place of her relatability, however, comes a refreshing perspective. We might expect to hear Ribs 2.0, but instead, Lorde serenades us with “Couldn’t wait to turn fifteen/ Then you blink and it’s been ten years … Growing up a little at a time then all at once/ Everybody wants the best for you/ But you gotta want it for yourself.” There’s no anger, no animosity. Lorde, who was once our best friend, is now our older sister telling us to move on and grow up. Yet, she doesn’t allude to a perfect life. In “Man with an Axe and Big Star,” she reflects on themes of love, family, heartbreak and perseverance. Her songs still tell stories of pain, yet they no longer come with a bitter edge.
Though the first four songs off the album introduce us to the Lorde who has found peace on the New Zealand coast, the songs “Fallen Fruit” and “Leader of the New Regime” feel out of place, as she peppers in her anxieties about the climate crisis. While this worry is extremely valid, it is disconnected to the theme of the work as a whole. The thread linking her newfound love for the sun to the current climate crisis falls flat. Similarly, the song “Mood Ring,” which is meant to be a satirical comment on wellness culture, does not quite fit in with the central tone of the album. However, it is saved by a refreshing beat and catchy guitar hook. The same is true of the song “Dominos,” which offers a lighthearted condemnation of people who treat the earth as disposable: “Just another phase you’re rushing on through … Fifty gleaming chances in a row/ And I watch you flick them down like dominoes.”
Lorde is known for her conclusions. In “Pure Heroine,” she ends with a bittersweet and quintessentially teenage line: “You’re my best friend and we’re dancing in a world alone/ World alone, we’re all alone.” In “Solar Power,” she’s different. She’s refreshed and recharged. “Oceanic Feeling,” the closer, provides some of her best lyricism, but none of the music and the sound that made Lorde so recognizable. This song seems purely for herself. We fans are lucky to simply listen and learn what we may. Lorde no longer holds our hand, but rather holds a mirror to a new way of living.