Solar Power (Universal)
The rule of three is in play with this record from New Zealander, Ella Yelich-O’Connor. Her third album as Lorde in eight years – the first of them released when she was 16 – it represents more than a new collection of songs, as she moves into a personal as much as a creative reckoning.
That’s not just growing up, but understanding. In essence, her three albums - 2013’s Pure Heroine, 2017’s Melodrama, and Solar Power - represent what you might call Yelich-O’Connor’s progression through the unknowing, the learning, and the knowing.
It’s a process reflected in the three album covers.
The first time around it was white text on black background, her face unseen, the music’s provenance and context a mystery, and whatever story was to be told would be found, or at least guessed at, within. The second album is a painting of her in bed, the colours and her face thick with reservations and more worn emotions, and a story told in those details. This third album is a shot of her bare arse as she’s skipping over the photographer, blue sky above and joyful lack of restraints everywhere.
Pure Heroine was made when she was writing for the fun of it: ambitious but hardly groomed for success or manipulated for it; relatively isolated in Auckland, absorbing success and fame and their attendant behaviours one or two steps removed, through filtered media. She didn’t know what was going to hit her, what was going to be asked of her, which is fortunate as she became the biggest thing out of New Zealand that wasn’t a movie about hairy-footed short people.
Melodrama was the after effect of that impact: four years later on, the songs finding her smacked-in-the-face by questions of who to trust and is this what I wanted, alongside feelings of euphoria and fatigue and artistic self-questioning. It wasn’t that it was particularly darker than its predecessor – Pure Heroine after all, in one sense, was a more emotionally constrained and sonically narrower record – but it certainly felt more sceptical. About everything.
Solar Power, a further four years on from Melodrama, is the sound of someone more knowing about herself, more aware of where she stands in relation to us – or at least her core audience – and prepared to share that knowledge. Though let’s be careful and not say she is offering The Answer. As she explains in the opening track, The Path, “if you’re looking for a saviour, well, that’s not me/You need someone to take your pain for you?/Well, that’s not me”.
Instead, this “girl who’s seen it all” offers advice with a mixture of consideration and perspective (“Everybody wants the best for you/But you’ve gotta want it for yourself”) and light self-mocking about the “teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash,” as she had earlier described herself in Flight Path, who may or may not have wisdom born from pain (“Thank you for flying with Strange Airlines, I will be your tour guide today/Your emotional baggage can be picked up a carousel number two”).
The piquant but still droll Stoned At The Nail Salon, for example, considers the possibility of a life not always led by the “hot blood” of passion – or “the music you loved at 16” (hint, hint?) – where a couple of “former hell raisers” may find themselves sharing the weekend paper after the sun rises rather than being there to groggily greet its rising. Or where you might think it’s a good idea to “spend all the evenings you can with the people who raised you”.
Then again, she says, “maybe I’m just stoned at the nail salon again”, and you have to laugh admiringly at the none-more-New Zealander of that. That and the questions she asks in the final track, the family-focused Oceanic Feeling: “If I have a daughter/Will she have my waist/Or my widows peak?/My dreamer’s disposition, or my wicked streak? … Will she split a tab with her lover?/And laugh at the stars like her mother/When she was a girl?”
Lest this seem like some smug “it wasn’t too bad and I’ve sorted myself out because I’m just better than average” homilies, songs like Big Star more than hint at some of the ways she didn’t cope. “I used to love the party, now I’m not all right/Drinking in the dark, take me home tonight …
Baby you’re a big star/You’re a big star/Wanna take your picture,” she sings, a few songs after making clear in California that Los Angeles (in thinking and indulgence as much as in the flesh and concrete) may have changed her life, but it still left a hole: “Goodbye to all the bottles, all the models/Bye to the kids in the lines for the new Supreme.”
Beyond the thoughts on self and life-awareness, the real message maybe in the music, and specifically the tenor of the songs, that Yelich-O’Connor uses to couch her lines.
Stepping back from some of the harder shell uptempto tracks from Melodrama and the chilled cruises of both albums, Solar Power is exactly as it suggests in the title: warmed and fuelled by the sun.
These songs arrive like weekend visitors to your holiday rental (remember when we could do those?): casual, in good humour, already improving your mood, not looking to do more than share the space. Tempos are languid, you could almost say stretched out and sunbathing; the guitars more likely to twirl than push; basslines play just under the skin rather than in the guts; Yelich-O’Connor’s voice playful in languor, layered rather than thickened when a bit more active.
If Leader Of A New Regime and Stoned At The Nail Salon feel like less tortured Judee Sill, then California occupies a similar mood to a lot of Harry Styles’ last record and Fallen Fruit is some gorgeous folk song everyone who was anyone in California was singing at Mama Cass’ house.
Attractive records can make you feel like it’s summer, even when there’s some chill within them or around you. They can also get labelled slight and external rather than internal and worthy, because we’re often suspicious of moods that are comfortable in their repose. When you get some of those songs in isolation – say, as pre-album singles – it can feel as if not enough is being done or asked. And when you find the wisdoms within are acquired without deep scars, it can feel as if not enough was earned.
Those can be silly judgments. Solar Power is an attractive record, and I’m good with that.