“Come on and let the happiness begin”, chants Lorde on the title track of her third album. “Blink your eyes three times when you feel it start.” Alas, I’ve had this collection of Hippie Heat Mist Noodles on repeat for a few days now, and I’m still waiting for the promised sonic effect. In fact, I’m still waiting for more than one or two discernible songs.
The disappointment of Solar energy feels intense, because Lorde, real name Ella Yelich O’Connor, had set the bar so high that David Bowie thought she was “the future of music”. The New Zealander was only 16 when she first appeared on the pop scene in 2013, like a fluorescent light. His first album, Pure heroine was the work of an artist who had no interest in flattering emotions. Instead, Lorde used her unique and exciting manipulation of synths and vocal harmonies to shine harsh beams on messy truths. It was a mission she pursued with the raw exploration of “the terror and the horror of wondering why we bother” on her second album. Melodrama (2017).
Corn Solar energy finds Lorde trading her trademark franchise for a melodyless detachment. Instead of finding fresh new sounds, producer Jack Antonoff helped her filter out the trippy beach vibes of the 1960s through her love of early hits from the Noughties of S Club 7 and Robbie Williams. There’s a nod to George Michael’s “Faith” (1987) in the stubble and booty-shaker beat of the title track, and a sleepy nod to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” (2010) on “California”, with its farewell to “all bottles, all models” and slightly Tori Amos-ish falsetto jump into the chorus. There’s a little Natalie Imbruglia breeze in the driving time bop of “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All)”. The slap of the palm of the bongos echoes through “Oceanic Feeling”, arousing sweet memories of All Saints’ “Pure Shores” (2000), but lacking the tidal momentum of the old tune.
Interviewed by The New York TimesLorde says she’s spent years tweaking the vibe of a psychedelic summer to make “a great weed album.” She clearly had fun sampling waves and cicadas on her phone and recruiting Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo to add floating layers of sweet harmony. There are groovy flutes and a crackling tambourine. Despite her long-standing hatred for guitars, she earned an ace when fellow New Zealander Neil Finn left her 1965 Fender Jaguar “Lake Placid Blue” in her studio for her. Producer Jack Antonoff gives the vintage guitar a delightfully cool, smooth sound: like a Hockney pool. But he lets it splash around without really delivering any memorable hooks – until you tune it like a water feature in a hotel lobby. He pours aimless arpeggios on “Stoned at the Nail Salon” as Lorde sighs for the songs she loved at 16 and sounds like she already misses the one she sang. This is one of the many songs whose melody is discolored by the sun.
Throughout the record, Lorde says she delivers an “extreme satire” of modern wellness cults of the kind that she and her friends find appealing. In the video for “Mood Ring”, she dresses in a blonde wig – à la Gwyneth Paltrow – and participates in a variety of Goopy hobbies like cute pebble patterns clad in designer silk. In a panting voice, she sings about how the Searing Sage and Cleansing Crystals “can’t seem to fix my mood / Today it’s as dark as my roots.” But the voice lacks the bite of satirical conviction or the weight of real grief.
Lorde has often spoken of wanting to make music like Joni Mitchell. Solar energy looks like his vision for the 21st century The hissing of summer lawns, the 1975 classic in which Mitchell explored the dark undersides of privileged California suburban lives. But where Mitchell has spoken of deep desperation in her stories of rich women hiding “spiritual darkness with a cheerful mask,” Lorde is content to float on her lovely pastichey soundscape without really connecting. More lack than happiness.