solar power

A vision of late summer reflection and contemplation: Solar Power Album Review

Ella Yelich-O’Connor, a young singer-songwriter known as Lorde, released her third album Solar Power on the 20th of August 2021.

Renowned for her unorthodox musical style, her unique performances and her lyricism, Lorde strayed away from her usual synth-pop and alternative/indie style with this more stripped-down, indie-folk, and psychedelic sounding body of work.

Lorde and Solar Power

Her decision may have impacted Solar Power’s critical reception, as compared to its predecessors Melodrama and Pure Heroine, the album was met with a less satisfactory rating of 69 on Metacritic and 6.8 on Pitchfork.  

Instrumentally, Solar Power is a low-key album. Its melodies are conveyed through acoustic guitars and drums, which is a sharp contrast to the electronic instruments featured prominently in Ella’s previous work.

As a result, it noticeably lacks texture, as well as the angst and moodiness we are so used to hearing from Lorde. Instead, it appears to us as a vision of late-summer self-reflection: a more subdued contemplation of the past, present, and future, and a wider reflection of our natural world.

solar power

Perhaps one of the reasons why Solar Power sounds so strikingly distinct from the rest of Lorde’s discography, is because it is presented to us by Ella’s most mature version of herself: a woman who no longer identifies with the Lorde in Melodrama and Pure Heroine.

Within the album, Ella reflects upon defining moments in her life and upon her decision to leave behind her reckless partying ways in favour of a more mature and eco-friendly lifestyle. No better is this displayed than in California, where Ella declares that she’s outgrown ‘The Golden State’ in the repeated phrase: “Don’t want that California love”.

However, she admits that she is still often tempted to return to her old life with the words “every time I smell tequila the garden grows up in my mind again”, which she sings against a pleasant and playful instrumental backing.

This song is bittersweet, because California and the lifestyle associated with it is central to Melodrama, so this is Lorde’s way of telling us that she has moved on.

Solar Power celebrates and liberates whilst also retaining a sense of uncertainty and apprehension for the future. Notably, the title track Solar Power celebrates the power of the sun and the natural world as Ella embraces her newfound happiness, and in Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All), Ella sings to her younger self in an uplifting message of reassurance.

However, in Stoned at the Nail Salon, Ella expresses her uncertainty surrounding her decision to leave her old ways behind. She knows that it is the right thing to do, and that she must change with time, but she continues to doubt herself.

The tone is lightened when she wonders if perhaps, she is just experiencing marijuana-induced thoughts. With gentle guitar and melodies, and a clear emphasis on the lyrics, this track seems to represent a stream of consciousness and contemplation.

Ella’s concern for the future is conveyed in The Path, the opening song of the album, which begins as a record of Lorde’s life, from her birth to her early fame.

It is told through eerie vocals harmonising against a guitar instrumental, and much like the title track Solar Power, it picks up halfway through to adopt a more gospel sound, using melismatic vocals to convey an anthem-like message that we cannot all be each other’s saviours.

Ella is rejecting the idea that she, as a celebrity with a young fan base, should be viewed as some sort of leader, which is something she has discussed before in her previous work. She then turns to the sun for guidance, expressing her hope that “the sun will show us the path”.

Aside from referring to Lorde’s own wish for direction, this may refer to how we have been left to find the path to save the future of our planet ourselves by past generations who damaged our world.

Much of the inspiration for this album came from Ella’s 2019 Antarctica expedition, which prompted her to produce an environmentally conscious record.

A CD was not included within Ella’s eco-friendly Solar Power boxes (which meant that the sales of these boxes did not contribute towards the copies of her album sold to measure its chart debut) and her merch for this era will be made from recycled cotton waste, to help our environment.

Fundamentally, Solar Power seeks to commemorate nature. In a letter to her fans, Lorde wrote: “The album is a celebration of the natural world, an attempt at immortalising the deep, transcendent feelings I have when I’m outdoors.

In times of heartache, grief, deep love, or confusion, I look to the natural world for answers.” With its vulnerable lyrics, this album portrays a balance between Ella’s personal life and the world as a wider concept. Perhaps this is to warn us that to live so wrapped up in ourselves with no consideration of the world around us will result in an upset of this balance.

References to climate change are interspersed throughout this album, some hidden, others in plain sight, but Fallen Fruit is perhaps the most transparent.

Musically, it is enchanting and mystical, with its steady guitar rhythm creating the illusion of walking swiftly through a magical forest, and the haunting vocals and pizzicato conjuring up images of nymphs and pixies.

At 1:53, everything dies away to reveal a heavy bass which allows Lorde’s voice to dominate in a commanding tone, and we are reminded of Melodrama’s use of such a technique.

She directly calls out companies for contributing to global warming with the words “From the Nissan, to the Phantom, to the plane”, and warns of the floods that will hit us in the future if our world continues to decline: “we’ll disappear in the cover of the rain”.

This lyric also links to Liability from Melodrama where Ella sings “you’re all gonna watch me disappear into the sun”, yet this time there is a perspective shift. Gradually more texture is introduced back in until the chorus returns more intensely than before.

As its title suggests, Fallen Fruit alludes to food shortages, and the words “You’ll leave us dancing on the fallen fruit” and “We had no idea the dreams we had were far too big” remind us that because of the actions and ignorance of previous generations, Earth will soon succumb to the destruction caused by climate change, just as a once-sweet fruit falls to the ground and begins to rot.

Lorde also calls for action in the face of the climate crisis in Leader of a New Regime. She appears to imagine a dystopia where, as climate change destroys Earth, people desperately escape to a remote island.

The concept of this interlude is quite satirical, as Lorde pokes fun at the way in which she imagines people would react to such a catastrophe: by packing useless materialistic items and boarding atmosphere-damaging planes. This track also sounds reminiscent of Queen, with slow and steady scales and a strong guitar and vocals.

However, Lorde has rejected the notion that Solar Power is her “big climate change record”. Whilst she expressed her wish to celebrate the natural world, she told The Guardian:

“I’m not a climate activist, I’m a pop star. I stoke the fire of a giant machine, spitting out emissions as I go. There is a lot I don’t know.” – Lorde

Certainly, Ella should be able to make environmentally conscious music without being reprimanded for not releasing an unequivocal climate change-centred record or being appointed the title of ‘climate activist’. It is fair to say that listening to an album which repeatedly and explicitly warns of the declining state of our planet would not make for the most positive of listening experiences.

Yet a record which employs subtle but remarkable lyricism to bestow upon us enough nods to climate change to convey Ella’s intentions, but not too many to be considered overwhelming, is both compelling and refreshing.

Lorde uses her art to convey her thoughts and feelings, intertwining her life with the world around her to create a well-rounded album. Admittedly, the wide sphere of themes Solar Power encompasses makes it lack the conciseness of Melodrama.

However, this is presumably intentional, as this album is not supposed to be concentrated within the walls of a party as Melodrama was; instead it runs free outdoors, across beaches and through forests.

Escapism is another theme Lorde discusses, primarily in Mood Ring. This is perhaps the most upbeat sounding track on the album, with its satirical attempt to call out our need to rely on materialistic and external things to feel something, as we become swallowed up by our modern world.

Hence Lorde relies on her mood rings to decipher how she is feeling, and in the Mood Ring music video she dons a blonde wig to symbolise the difficulty of living authentically.

Her vocals project assertively over a cheerful instrumental backing which intensifies as the song progresses, and her words accommodate references to astrology, crystals, and drugs as methods of escapism in a world where it can seem as though everything is bleak.

Lorde’s use of satire in this track may be another way for her to exhibit escapism and artificiality: Mood Ring sounds light-hearted and upbeat, but its meaning is not so, as if she has gifted to us the ugly truth wrapped in a beautiful disguise. This may be a demonstration of the human inability to truly accept inevitability.

Particularly in our modern world, we think that if we can find ways to distract ourselves, then our problems will be put on hold, as Ella did with her partying lifestyle in her previous albums. This sort of escapism is also prominent in Stoned at the Nail Salon: a marijuana infused sequence of thoughts and Fallen Fruit which mentions psychedelics.

Solar Power also reflects on a theme pivotal to our lives and the world around us. Slightly toward the latter end of the album, sit three songs a little detached from the rest. They harbour love in its different forms.

The trio are led by The Man with the Axe: a song to Lorde’s older lover. It is far more downbeat and wistful, as if Lorde is singing this late at night by a fire.

The track changes last minute to become very warped, distorted, and psychedelic sounding, as if we have been transformed into an altered state, just as “the man with the axe” has transformed Ella herself with his love. She also cleverly sings “You felled me clean as a pine” in reference to deforestation and the sometimes-destructive nature of love.

Next is Dominoes: a love turned sour. This song has a different tone to the rest of the album. It is cheeky, and taunting, as Lorde calls out presumably an ex-lover for being unstable and ruining every opportunity he was ever given.

The music aligns perfectly with the vocals to create a laid back and teasing rhythm, as Ella is relieved of the emotional baggage of this relationship.

Finally, Big Star represents love lost. It is a dedication to Lorde’s pet dog, whose passing took a huge toll on her. With a gentle and pleasant instrumental backing, this song is sweet, touching, and emotive.

An album cannot serve any sense of self-reflection or permit us a glimpse inside the life of its creator without exhibiting the importance of love. Ella has often used music to discuss heartbreak and relationships as defining moments in her path to maturity, and Solar Power is no exception.

With these songs, Ella reminds us that love persists in the past, present, and future as an influential force, and that it is not something we can run away from.

The album concludes with Oceanic Feeling, which is sung from a paradise island where everything is calm. Lorde wonders about her future and reflects on her past, using evocative vocals against an organ to create a spiritual sound. The drums are redolent of a tropical island, and when an electric guitar is introduced, the song begins to pick up.

Lorde sings “Now the cherry black lipstick’s gathering dust in a drawer” which was the lip colour she was associated with when she was first launched into fame, signifying that she is no longer the person she once was. At its end, the song completely changes, and Ella sings beautifully, using high, breathy vocals against the sounds of insects.

In the final line Lorde sings that she will step into the choir, directly mirroring the end of Liability in Melodrama where she steps into the sun, therefore just as that signalled her journey to liberation, this is her new direction.

So, Solar Power ends rather open-endedly, however the words “I-I know you’ll show me how”, insinuate that Lorde now has some guidance in her life, and that she has established her maturity.

Upon first listen, Solar Power sounds quite disappointing compared to Lorde’s previous work (especially considering the four-year wait for its release). Many of the songs do not deliver quite enough dynamism or the satisfying build-up of texture found on earlier tracks like Ribs, or Green Light.

However, this album can be defined as a ‘grower’. After recovering from the initial shock of the difference in sound, becoming engrossed in the listening experience it provides is effortless. The gentle and restrained musical background allows for a clearer focus on Lorde’s ingenious lyricism and create a more laidback, relaxed atmosphere.

Solar Power’s themes are thought-provoking and relatable too: we all deal with change and growth, we all struggle with the pressures of our modern world, we all grapple with love and love lost, we are all anxious of what’s to come, and we all share a responsibility to respect our natural world.

As for the songs individually, standouts include Fallen Fruit which enchants with its unique psychedelic sound, and Mood Ring as a feel-good piece. Oceanic Feeling lures us in with its tropical island aura and Stoned at the Nail Salon evokes sadness and prompts contemplation.

Ella’s raw talent and attention to detail is evident, and with every listen can be noticed something new. Solar Power is a highly admirable piece of art which enables us to zone out of our lives for the span of 12 songs, before returning with a greater sense of respect for the world around us, a greater appreciation for the changes we have gone through, and a greater admiration for Lorde’s new stripped down and understated sound.