Plenty of mainstream pop stars have decided they no longer want to be mainstream pop stars. They’ve tried everything to achieve their goal, from making deliberately unlistenable albums, to – in the memorable case of the late Scott Walker – locking themselves in a monastery on the Isle of Wight.
But few have attempted to bid farewell to mainstream pop stardom as prettily as Lorde does on her third album. It opens with a guitar picking a gentle, woozy-sounding figure. A flute glides beatifically by and Lorde offers a grim depiction of life as a teenager superstar – complete with “nightmares from the camera flash” – before apparently saying goodbye to all that: “alone on a windswept island”, she “won’t take the call if it’s the label or radio”. “If you’re looking for a saviour,” she adds, “that’s not me”, which would sound a little self-aggrandising had the world of online fandom not become so overheated that whenever a female pop star posts anything on social media, the responses are clogged up by stans calling them “mum”, “queen” and “goddess”.
Mood Ring by Lorde
It’s a theme Solar Power frequently returns to. On the title track, she chucks her mobile in the sea. Oceanic Feeling depicts the “cherry black lipstick” that formed part of Lorde’s old image “gathering dust in a drawer”, while California dismisses the hedonism that Solar Power’s predecessor, 2017’s Melodrama, positively revelled in: “goodbye to all the bottles, all the models … it’s all just a dream, I want to wake up.” Clearly Lorde has been on quite a journey in the eight years since her debut album, although it would be more shocking if she hadn’t: she was, after all, only 16 when she released Pure Heroine, with its global No 1 hit single Royals. The surprise is that her journey turned out to be a round trip. Pure Heroine painted her home in New Zealand as impossibly remote, filled with “cities you’ll never see onscreen”. So does Solar Power, but rather than a source of frustration, it depicts New Zealand’s remoteness as an asset: a place you can escape celebrity in favour of a life that, as far as can be gathered, consists largely of smoking weed and sunbathing.
To which the obvious response might be: well, that’s easy for you to say. Skinning up on a beach all day is doubtless better than working, but it’s not really an option if you’re not absolutely minted. To her credit, Lorde seems to realise that, undercutting her sermonising with a selection of metaphorical cocked eyebrows and sly looks to camera: “I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus”, “maybe I’m just stoned”. There’s a knowing wink about the title of Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All); the distinct sense that she knows the guy she mocks in Dominoes – forgoing cocaine for yoga and wellness – doesn’t seem a million miles removed from her.
Solar Power by Lorde Photograph: PR
She draws from an eclectic range of musical inspirations – Primal Scream kindly declined to call their lawyers over the title track’s obvious resemblance to their single Loaded, and she’s presumably the first pop star in history to suggest Robbie Williams’ Rock DJ as a big influence – but what Solar Power really recalls, at least spiritually, is the rash of albums by artists who followed the example of Steve Winwood’s band Traffic, and uncoupled themselves from the dizzying whirl of mid-60s pop to move to Berkshire or Wales or Scotland in order to get it together in the country. It shares their back-to-nature-ethos; their mood of recumbent contentment; their tendency to deal in homespun wisdom. The cover might depict its author skipping along the sand with her bum out rather than wrangling a sheep on a muddy farm, but there’s not a huge distance between Lorde counselling her fans to spend time “with the people who raised you” and protesting the constant online judgment that accompanies modern fame – “I don’t miss the poison arrows aimed directly at my head” – and Paul McCartney hymning the pleasures of home cooking and complaining about “too many people preaching practices” on 1971’s Ram.
It also shares those old albums’ retreat from the currently-hip sound of contemporary pop in favour of something earthier. There are electronics on Solar Power, but its main instrument is guitar, usually acoustic. There are plenty of lovely melodies, but it noticeably declines to deal in the primary currency of latterday pop, the banger, in favour of understatement. Bucking another current pop trend, it’s an album clearly designed to be listened to in full, rather than a collection of tracks from which to select additions to a playlist. It’s an approach that, at its worst, yields songs that sound undernourished – Fallen Fruit and Dominoes – but elsewhere it delivers, albeit gently: Stoned at the Nail Salon’s softly yearning power; the delicate shuffle of Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All).
There is a chance Solar Power might capture a widespread mood in the same way that Pure Heroine’s highlighting of the gulf between pop’s projection of glamour and teenage life did in 2013. There’s currently talk about the Great Resignation, a post-pandemic reconsideration of the work-life balance that’s apparently led to millions of Americans quitting their jobs every month. Then again, the relatively underwhelming commercial performance of its singles thus far suggests not. Listening to Solar Power, you wonder whether its author wouldn’t actually prefer the latter response to the former.