The best Lorde song is still “Ribs”; the best Lorde album is still Melodrama. Not to bum you out, here on release day for the serenely restless New Zealand pop star’s third full-length, Solar Power. But I figured I’d get that out of the way because I value your time, and so, quite earnestly, does she, though all the beachy and weedy and deep-spacey earnestness makes Solar Power somewhat of a sun-kissed bummer. Most likely this uneasily blissful and banger-averse record isn’t what you want, but it’s clearly what Lorde thinks you need. She just wants you to be happy. She just wants you to put your phone down and catch some rays. She knows how that might sound—a little tuned out, a little pedantic—and yeah, sometimes it sounds like that. But it’s not the end of the world. (OK, this record isn’t the end of the world.) We’ll get through this together. She’s eager to help. Take her at her word, even when it seems like she might be joking.
“Ribs,” though: still the best. It is 2013, and Ella Yelich-O’Connor is 16 years old, and the malevolent hush of her shocking smash-hit debut single, “Royals”—“We’re bigger than we ever dreamed / And I’m in love with being queen”—has made her 21st-century pop’s most improbable and vital superstar yet. Her electro-goth marvel of a debut album, Pure Heroine, delivers on that promise throughout—“We’re so happy / Even when we’re smiling out of fear” is still a killer line—but “Ribs” is the one. The murmuring pulse of insomniac ennui. The massed wail of breathy backing vocals that crests with my favorite high note of the past decade. And Lorde’s wistful teenage lamentations (“Mum and Dad let me stay home / It drives you crazy getting old”) that would sound ridiculous if she weren’t so deadly serious. It’s perfect. The tradeoff now is being thrilled she’s in a better place while fearing that she’ll never make a better song there.
And so now, midway through Solar Power, we get a breezy little acoustic-guitar jam called “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All),” which aims for the gentle majesty of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” but settles for mid-tier cardigan coffeehouse Taylor Swift and leans a bit too hard on generic (and algorithmic) Instagram uplift:
Couldn’t wait to turn 15
Then you blink and it’s been 10 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
“I was listening to ‘Ribs,’ which is a little weird of me, but I was, and just thinking about who I was at that time of life,” Lorde explains, in a track-by-track PR release. “I was so apprehensive about what was to come and about growing up and there was so much I didn’t know. I took two of the chords from that song, reversed them, and this is future me talking back to her sort of saying ‘It’s going to be OK.’”
This is a lovely sentiment that results, alas, in a rather anodyne pop song. Lorde is too charismatic, too shrewd, too industrious for “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” to be an outright failure: From the title on down, there’s a wry wink to it; there is a bracing lyrical reference, one of several throughout the album, to her beloved dog, Pearl, whose 2019 death compelled Lorde to delay the album entirely. (“’Member all the hurt you would feel when you weren’t desired?” she sings now. “’Member what you thought was grief before you got the call?”) There is also a surrealist outro in which Robyn plays an airline stewardess whose spiel starts with her announcing, “Welcome to Sadness!” Yes, that Robyn. “Your emotional baggage can be picked up at Carousel No. 2,” she intones. “Please be careful so that it doesn’t fall onto someone you love.” It’s all just weird enough to be compelling, but it lacks the propulsion, and the melancholy severity, that makes a great Lorde song truly great.
“Secrets From a Girl” also realizes some of the fears you might’ve had back when Solar Power’s beach-bonfire blissout of a title track first surfaced back in June. There’s the acoustic guitar, never a Lorde staple: “You know, I’ve, like, historically hated guitars,” she told The New York Times’s Joe Coscarelli in a Diary of a Song interview in early August. “And Jack thinks it’s very funny that we’ve made, like, a guitar album.” (Jack, of course, is the disconcertingly ubiquitous Jack Antonoff, reprising his Melodrama role as coproducer and frequent cowriter.) There’s the woozy and edgeless and doggedly retro dance-pop vibe that echoes everyone from Jack Johnson to Nelly Furtado to the Beta Band. (Primal Scream and George Michael’s estate, furthermore, reportedly gave Lorde their blessing, which is to say politely declined to vie for songwriting credit.) There’s the mild vapidity of the lyrics themselves, her characteristic sharp darts (“I’m kind of like a prettier Jesus”) blunted by a few IG-caption clunkers (“No shirt, no shoes, only my features”). And finally, there’s the “Solar Power” video, so cheery as to appear vaguely cult-y, and pushing her perilously close to a sort of uncanny valley of irony. Is this a bit? Is this a sort of escape hatch where it’s not a bit but she can pretend maybe it’s a bit if enough people assume it’s a bit?
The blunt-force optimism of “Solar Power” grows on you, if only grudgingly; not so “Mood Ring,” the record’s third and last prerelease single, another slight and goopy acoustic jam that stumbles awkwardly into pure Goop-esque parody: “I’m tryna get well from the inside / Plants and celebrity news / All the vitamins I consume / Let’s fly somewhere Eastern, they’ll have what I need.” You can respect (grudgingly) Lorde’s impulse to swerve, to frustrate expectations, to not repeat herself, to keep you on your toes. (“I think I’m still giving something that’s really digestible,” she told Coscarelli in a separate piece. “But it’s my pleasure to confound. I’m down to be that for people.”) Your pleasure, though, may vary, especially if what you want from her is a further refined and rocket-fueled version of what she’s already given you.
Lorde’s fantastic second album, 2017’s Melodrama, flirted just enough with furious crying-on-the-dance-floor ecstasy on thwarted smash hits like “Green Light” and “Supercut” to be a worthy Pure Heroine successor, and the album’s mixed reception—critical rapture, but lower sales and no “Royals”-style chart-toppers—fixed Lorde as a big star who still scanned as a feisty underdog. (Even when the Grammys nominated Melodrama for Album of the Year, they also managed to insult her by not offering her a solo performing spot like all her fellow nominees.) The entire point of “Royals” was that she wanted superfame on her own visceral and combative terms, that she could rage against the insipid pop-star machine from inside it. The most bracing moments on Solar Power exploit the tension between Ella the intensely private New Zealander and Lorde the beloved global pop anti-diva. “The Path” kicks off the record with some ominous (and less bonfire-y) guitar, a Bond-flick flute melody, and some monster opening lines:
Born in the year of OxyContin
Raised in the tall grass
Teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash
On the second verse, the drums (courtesy of wily Soundgarden/Fiona Apple/Bob Dylan vet Matt Chamberlain) kick in, and Lorde offers us a real-life vignette steeped in delicious detail:
Arm in a cast at the museum gala
Fork in my purse to take home to my mother
Supermodels all dancing round a pharaoh’s tomb
But then the uplifting chorus hits, the sun rises, the surf nips your bare feet, a fruity drink appears in your hand out of nowhere, and the spell, the enchanting moodiness of it all, is broken in favor of an awkwardly bumptious facsimile of carefree merriment, though Lorde seems to anticipate your disappointment: “Now if you’re looking for a savior / That’s not me.” You get to feeling like a vampire on this record, twitching at the first hint of warm sunlight. She knows how to set a scene; she knows how to take a sledgehammer to the scenery when it’s time to move on. “I’ve grown a lot,” she told the Times. “Done a lot. I’m happy. I work out a ton. My body’s hot. I’m feeling good. And life is good, you know? And I’m bringing you in on where I’m at right now.”
Where she’s at does include a few startling moments of celebrity unease reminiscent of Billie Eilish’s recent Happier Than Ever. “California” is a dusty trip-hop-adjacent shimmer that starts with Lorde’s explicit recollection of “Royals” winning Song of the Year at the 2014 Grammys: “Once upon a time in Hollywood when Carole called my name / I stood up, the room exploded, and I knew that’s it, I’ll never be the same.” But the song, per an eerie and horn-laden chorus better suited to her strengths, is about leaving all that behind: “Goodbye to all the bottles / All the models / Bye to the kids in the lines for the new Supreme / Don’t want that California love.” Later, on a slower and gothier folk dirge called “The Man With the Axe” that sacrifices melody for atmosphere—always a good trade where Lorde’s concerned—she forlornly waves at us from within the gilded cage pop stardom builds for all the greats:
I’ve got hundreds of gowns
I’ve got paintings in frames
And a throat that fills with every panic every festival day
Dutifully falling apart for the Princess of Norway
Lorde’s off-kilter way with vocal and verbal texture, with destabilizing detail, is too great an asset to make any one song on Solar Power an outright dud. (“The Man With the Axe” is also a tantalizingly vague takedown of the man in question: “But you with your doll’s lashes / Your infinite T-shirts / I should’ve known when your favorite record was the same as my father’s, you’d take me down.”) She’s hard to beat when it comes to opening lines. “Everyone knows that you’re too good for me, don’t they?” she laments at the onset of the achingly muted alt-rockish ballad “Big Star,” a love letter to her dog. “I heard that you were doing yoga / With Uma Thurman’s mother / Just outside of Woodstock,” she needles on “Dominoes,” a deceptively buoyant bedroom-folk excoriation of a crap gentleman she dubs “Mr. Start Again.” I genuinely just love to hear Lorde sing things, to revel in her flinging insults and levying accusations with a singular peculiar grace that somehow only magnifies her fury:
Know a girl who knows
Another girl who knows the woman that you hurt
It’s strange to see you smoking marijuana
You used to do the most cocaine
Of anyone I’d ever met
Her voice as both a songwriter and a pure singer—the luxurious bottom-of-the-ocean lows, the cackling evil-stepmother highs—serves her well whether she’s castigating her elders for presiding over environmental destruction (“Fallen Fruit”), or shouting out her family on the dreamy and rambling and album-closing “Oceanic Feeling,” or musing through the nearly as rambly daydream literally (and sincerely) called “Stoned at the Nail Salon.” Solar Power is an alluringly volatile mishmash of tones and eras, of reverence and irreverence: Sometimes she’s solemnly channeling the blissful folk-rock splendor of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and sometimes she’s harmonizing with fellow hypermodern pop star Phoebe Bridgers, who recently called David Crosby “little bitch” on Twitter. There is tons of atmosphere, tons of intrigue, tons of vivid personality on this record, but what I want is One Monster Song, one almighty jam, one slap, whatever your dorky preferred term—one track that I know for a fact would make my own personal Lorde Top 10. It’s not here, or if it’s here it’s hiding, slinking about, making me—making all of us—work for it.
So that’s where Lorde’s at: fighting the urge to even try to be a hitmaker, fighting the urge to look at her phone (she’s set it on grayscale to discourage overuse, as any recent Lorde profile worth its salt will tell you), fighting the urge to repeat herself, fighting the urge to come back from the beach. “I thought I was a genius,” she sings on “The Man With the Axe,” moody but wry as ever, “but now I’m 22.” Then she muses about “my fistful of tunes that it’s painful to play.” She is clearly adamant that Lorde the glamorous star not subsume Ella the carefree, barefoot human. Actually she’s 24 now. The best-case scenario is that she’s served up a knotty and compelling but frustratingly low-key third album because that’s how she’ll keep her equilibrium long enough to one day present you with her fourth album, her sixth, her 10th.
Also, and maybe most importantly, none of those will be mere reprises of her first album. “Now the cherry-black lipstick’s gathering dust in a drawer / I don’t need her anymore,” she sings deep within “Oceanic Feeling.” “’Cause I got this power / Just had to breathe out / And tune in.” Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true; just because it might not work for you doesn’t mean it didn’t work for her.