Poetic Lyrics Get Lost in Murky Music

green and white leafed plantsAfter the release of her 2017 sophomore album, Melodrama, many critics rightfully anointed Lorde the poet laureate of pop music. Not since Fiona Apple’s Tidal had somebody so creatively and precisely expressed the humid volatility of early womanhood.

“I know this story by heart / Jack and Jill get fucked up and get possessive when they get dark,” snarled Lorde on the standout track “Sober.” It’s just one of countless tattooable lyrics that Lorde penned for Melodrama. That album, which was partly inspired by a breakup, turned Lorde into a pop star supernova. Fans crafted memes about Lorde’s uncanny ability to elegantly describe every feeling, no matter how fleeting. “I need Lorde to tell me how I feel” reads one particularly well-circulated image.

But Lorde never agreed to be Gen Z’s therapist, and on her new album, Solar Power, she gracefully but pointedly rejects the role. “Now if you’re looking for a savior,” states Lorde on album opener “The Path,” “Well that’s not me.” Instead, she suggests the healing powers of nature.

Written across the four years it’s been since a worn-out Lorde wrapped up her Melodrama tour, lassoed a storm cloud down from the sky, and rode it—this is how all sea witches travel—back to her native Auckland, Solar Power answers the question “What have you been up to?” with a sincere and quite literal “Not too much.” She’s been to the beach. She tended to her garden and walked the dog. But mostly she’s just been soaking up the surreal, borderline stupid beauty of her natural surroundings in New Zealand.

This is her actual life, Lorde tells us. Being “alone on a windswept island” puts her at ease, and it’s nice to see her feeling so relaxed. On “The Path” she describes herself in dichotomous terms: she was “raised in the tall grass” then all too swiftly became a “teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash.” Rapid success can eat a young person alive. Lorde knows this and has protocols in place, a certain way of living, that she relies on to keep herself balanced. Solar Power offers glimpses into those nature-infused protocols as wall as the various obsessions—climate change, ex-lovers, the internet—that threaten to undo them.

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With one or two exceptions, Lorde’s songwriting on Solar Power is the best it’s ever been. Beauty and nature have sharpened her poetic command of language and given her new reference points. “You felled me clean as a pine,” she confesses in that depthless alto voice of hers on “Man with the Axe.” On “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” Lorde invites us into the warm light of her home by describing her immediate surroundings in cinematic detail. “Got a wishbone drying on the windowsill in my kitchen.” How lovely does that sound? Then, in the context of this perfect moment she’s just described, Lorde confesses her ambivalence.

I love this life that I have

The vine hanging over the door

And the dog who comes when I call

But I wonder sometimes what I’m missing

Lorde knows better than to trust this moment of calm entirely. She’s suspicious of that other version of herself, the one she left in California, a place she accurately describes as being full of “clouds in the skies that all hold no rain.” To Lorde, California is both a “golden body” and a “cool hand” around her neck. This introspection, the way she instinctively questions her own commands and analyzes her feelings until they run clear, this is why we listen to Lorde. And there’s plenty of it to enjoy on Solar Power, if you can get past the album’s lackluster music.

In a recent profile in The New York Times , Lorde described her working partnership with pop music’s current it boy, Jack Antonoff, as collaborative but said ultimately, she holds the veto power. If that’s the case, she should’ve deployed it more. Too often, unnecessary production flourishes interrupt Lorde’s lyrical instincts. They are like pesky intrusive thoughts that disrupt a morning meditation. On “Dominoes,” Lorde’s rhythmic vocal delivery seems like a good fit for a gossipy song about a yuppie ex-boyfriend, but Antonoff’s pallid guitar noodling undermines her efforts.

On other tracks, the vibes are a little too on the nose. Anyone who had a subscription to the Disney Channel in 2003 will surely recognize the sugar rush melodies of S Club 7 on the saccharine “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All).” And while the cheesy whooshing sound effects that recall Len’s “If You Steal My Sunshine” work here, it’s only because the lyrics are equally trite: “Everybody wants the best for you // But you gotta want it for yourself.” Is this a Lorde album or a Lizzie McGuire movie?

In the Times, Lorde also called critics’ classification of her music as “Jack Antonoff albums” “retro” and “sexist,” which it absolutely is. People might’ve called George Martin a fifth Beatle, but I don’t recall anyone ever referring to Revolver or Rubber Soul as a George Martin album. Besides, what unites Lorde’s previous two albums in brilliance aren’t the production choices or the musical arrangements, but the songwriting those elements worked in service of. When all of these parts are properly balanced, an immersive experience like Melodrama emerges.

Lorde offers up the clearest depiction yet of what she yearns for after cos-playing as a pop star.

Things don’t come together in the same way on Solar Power. Hooks and bridges are the quintessential building blocks of a pop song and there are hardly any on this album. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but when you combine the lack of a unifying internal architecture with Antonoff’s heavy hand, what you get is a song like “Leader of a New Regime”: kind of boring and difficult to listen to.

This is such a shame because there’s a lot of wisdom in these songs, especially in the rare moments when all of the individual elements click into place, as they do on the album closer “Oceanic Feeling.” Amidst the warm purr of the Wurlitzer and a field of buzzing crickets, Lorde begins. “It’s a blue day,” she chants. She sounds so close, like she’s lying next to you on a beach towel. Then as a beat from a bongo drum builds slowly behind her, Lorde offers up the clearest depiction yet of what she yearns for after cos-playing as a pop star.

When I hit that water

When it holds me

I think about my father

Doing the same thing

When he was a boy.

Water, family, fish, a bonfire built out of “wood brought in by the tide.” This is what makes a life for Lorde. At last, we can picture her bliss.

Abigail Covington

Abigail Covington is a journalist and cultural critic based in Brooklyn, New York but originally from North Carolina, whose work has appeared in Slate, The Nation, Oxford American, and Pitchfork

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