When New Zealand–based singer-songwriter Lorde sang, “You’re all going to watch me disappear into the sun” in her 2017 song “Liability,” perhaps no fan of hers anticipated that she would, indeed, disappear from the public eye for four years; furthermore, probably nobody anticipated that her third album would provide such a literal translation of the line. Solar Power, released this past August, provides a bounty of sunny imagery, bursting with references to beaches, California, the sun, and light—a tongue-in-cheek embodiment of the spiritual-but-not-religious era. The personified version of the album might light sage and incense, then wink at you, almost as if to say, Can you believe I believe this’ll fix anything? But maybe it will. What does it mean to protect and advocate for ethical existence? Lorde asks as she reflects on the spiritual ambiguity of the current cultural moment. Is there anything that’s truly here? But even as Solar Power knocks at the hollow of everything that we seem to live for, these are questions that, even at the end, remain unanswered.
Solar Power, by virtue of its title and essence, seems almost completely to eschew what Lorde became known for in 2013 with her debut album Pure Heroine. Pure Heroine’s lead single, “Royals,” went on to garner over a billion streams, setting the tone for future anti-pop heroines like Billie Eilish. On red carpets and in performances, Lorde popularized the cherry-black lipstick look that so plagued early 2010s-era fashion—one that smacked of adolescent melodrama, accompanied by lyrics like “We don’t care / We aren’t caught up in your love affair.” But in Solar Power, this Lorde is nowhere to be found; indeed, the Lorde that emerges is much more relaxed, much more carefree, and—as evidenced by her complete transformation from sixteen-year-old cynic to twenty-five-year-old seventies rock maven—one who actually doesn’t care what you think.
But if Pure Heroine was a harbinger of the dark-pop era of music to come, then Solar Power is ahead of its time as well, partly because it stands in intentional opposition to Lorde’s previous songs, opposition that posits itself as a sign of maturation. If sixteen-year-old Lorde sings, “I’m not proud of my address / In a torn-up town, no postcode envy,” then twenty-five-year-old Lorde urges her audience to “Spend all the evenings you can with the people who raised you.” During much of the album she oscillates between conceding her own limitations (“I thought I was a genius, but now I’m twenty-two”) and toying with light, tongue-in-cheek satire (“I’m kind of like a prettier Jesus”).
On a larger scale, every song dances around questions of spirituality and religion, vacancy and meaning. The imagery associated with Lorde’s album—in the music videos, the album cover—seems reminiscent of Ari Aster’s Midsommar, a horror film about a Scandinavian cult. Many of the more natural references enfold into the age-old nature-versus-civilization, nature-versus-religion thematic structure that we also saw recently in David Lowery’s The Green Knight. The parts when Lorde speaks most directly about religion occur when she engages most in discourse about celebrity. In “The Path,” she tells her audience, “Now if you’re looking for a savior, well, that’s not me / You need someone to take your pain for you? Well, that’s not me.” It’s a straightforward deconstruction of the concept of celebrity, aspirations to celebrity, and the idolization of celebrities. Similarly, in Sally Rooney’s latest, Beautiful World, Where Are You, one of her protagonists, a famous novelist named Alice, writes about an anecdote involving an internet fan who had commented something ludicrous about Alice’s personal life:
[People online] really cannot tell the difference between someone they have heard of, and someone they personally know. And they believe that the feelings they have about this person they imagine me to be—intimacy, resentment, hatred, pity—are as real as the feelings they have about their own friends. It makes me wonder whether celebrity culture has sort of metastasised to fill the emptiness left by religion. A sort of malignant growth where the sacred used to be.
This is a conclusion that Lorde seems to have drawn as well, one that she’s freed herself from over the past few months. In recent interviews, she’s stated that she can only withstand the presumed life of the pop star—tours, interviews, the works—for so long before she runs home to New Zealand to be with her family, cooking, going to the beach, hanging out with friends. So really, Solar Power is Lorde’s announcement to the world that she’s disassembled everything that made her a “pop star.” Stop living in Los Angeles? Check. Stop seeing your career as your main motivator in life? Check. Stop creating the same kind of music that made you popular? Check. Lorde knew what her fans wanted, and she refused to deliver, but on purpose. Instead, within this refusal she focuses instead on the value of “a simpler life,” one that frees itself from the idea of the person as a product and a means of production, and instead someone who cares very much about the earth, and family, and work, and advocacy.
It’s easy to speculate why. Perhaps because she felt like her career mattered less in the larger context. Perhaps because she began to understand her own limitations. Perhaps because, after a certain point, and especially when one feels especially on the edge of impending disaster, most efforts at achievement or fame become disillusioning, seemingly fruitless. There’s a massive so what? posited by the album, which is valid but feels a little philosophically jumbled (presumably on purpose).
“We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain,” she sings in “400 Lux” from her debut Pure Heroine, and that’s a line that still rings true by the end of Solar Power. But when you crack the shells that surround everything—the concepts of self-care and self-actualization, which are both often shrouded by the language of capitalism; capitalism, which shrouds every bit of life in branded layers of empty, in exchange for your money; the satire, which makes fun of the way that capitalism has shrouded self-care and self-actualization—what’s left at the center? The platitudes that Lorde provides, both when she’s being earnest and when she’s being ironic, feel cavernous. Have you done “your best to trust all the rays of light”? Do you “hope the sun will show [you] the path”? Or—if you employ the satirical logistics that work behind “Mood Ring”—are these simply created for the purpose of tricking yourself into thinking that you’ve satiated yourself? Do you think we were ever meant to be fully satiated? Doesn’t the lack of satiation imply that there is a point in life at which you are meant to be full?
Maybe you look askance at it; maybe you don’t, and accept the lack of finality as final. Maybe you started going on Co-Star every day ironically, and now, you’ve found, it’s a little less ironic. Maybe lying on the beach makes you feel closer to the earth’s core. Maybe you read the New Yorker in an attempt to appreciate good things, to live life a little more educated. Maybe you read your Bible and wonder if your political affiliations have infiltrated your epistemology. At any rate, it’s hard to deny that the earth is decaying, and that with each day that passes, we bury more and more bodies underneath it. As time plunges us forward into a dizzying reality that can be hard to make sense of, we wonder what comes at the end of our desperations, our misgivings, our despair. Sometimes we hope despite ourselves, and sometimes we don’t hope despite ourselves. But even in Solar Power lies a deeply ingrained belief that clings to life and an affirmation of it. There’s a need to save and be saved, to rest and be still, while still evading the final piece: to know that existence and life finds itself valuable by virtue of being created by the God who loves us all.