We’ve heard it from Lorde herself: Solar Power is not a record about the climate crisis.
“I’m not a climate activist,” Ella Yelich-O’Connor — Lorde’s real name — told the Guardian in one of the first interviews published ahead of the album release on Aug. 20. ”I’m a pop star.”
Lorde is very much not Lil Dicky. But the 24-year-old perhaps sells herself short. One detail from the Guardian interview that found its way into features from the New York Times, Buzzfeed, and more was that How to Do Nothing, a book by Jenny Odell, shaped Solar Power and Lorde’s life leading up to it. She learned to “retrain [her] attention” — which, according to Odell, can actually be a revolutionary political act, especially in defence of the environment.
The ideas in Odell’s book fall far from the nihilism inferred by its title. At first glance, it appears to be a call to resist the capitalist attention economy, a system fortified by technology giants to gamify and therefore extract profit from every ounce of human curiosity. But going deeper, it’s not about switching off at all — it’s about where you redirect your attention to: that by learning how to truly connect to the world and communities around you, you are better equipped to resist the powerful forces putting our species on the path to ecological catastrophe.
It’s a popular notion that to disconnect from the world you need to retreat from it. For a while, that’s what Lorde did: for the last few years she ditched social media, grew plants, and walked her dog in New Zealand ("Can you reach me? No, you can't!"). But she returned, because as Odell puts forward, the only way you can resist the worst parts of society is not by leaving it. It’s instead by refusing it, dismantling it, consciously, however we are able.
This is where Solar Power is perhaps radical — not with a lecture, or a call to action. But with a superstar who has shifted her focus. Both removed and present, distant from her own celebrity mythology and yet moved to construct a new Lorde for a new era. “Saviour is not me,” Yelich-O’Connor sings on “The Path”. “I just hope the sun will show us the path.”
The music itself reflects this. It’s an album that, like its creator, takes its time. It’s like a sunrise: patient, softly spoken, occasionally burning bright, and inviting us all to absorb on her schedule. In that way, it’s reminiscent of an anecdote from Odell about an art project by Scott Polach called Applause Encouraged. In 2015, Polach invited 45 guests to watch a sunrise on foldout seats, protected by a red rope, at a cliff edge in San Diego. “They watched the sunset, and when it finished, they applauded,” Odell writes. “Refreshments were served afterwards.”
Much has been made ahead of the album release about Lorde’s trip to Antarctica to learn more about the climate crisis. Since that moment, Lorde confirmed Solar Power would not receive a CD release, instead selling a biodegradable, plastic-free Music Box. And she’s also joined the lineup for Global Citizen Live — a once-in-a-generation 24-hour broadcast to drive action to defend the planet and defeat poverty. You can take action to tackle the climate crisis as part of the campaign here.
In that context, it’s easy to see how many perceive Solar Power as a record about falling in love with the natural world. But apart from the obvious optimism of its title track, there’s a wistfulness to her more earthly lyrics — accompanied by a shift to a sound dominated more by spacious guitars than the absolute clarity of the piano melodies constructed in her previous music with Jack Antanoff, a longtime collaborator in what Lorde calls her musical “alchemy.”
She writes that “very perfect summer's gotta take its flight” and hopes “the honey bees make it home tonight” on “Big Star”; imagines a world ravaged by climate breakdown on “Leader of a New Regime”; while “Stoned at the Nail Salon” has some not-so-veiled allusions to her emotional state connected in some way to rising global temperatures. In fact, given the Odell inspiration, perhaps it’s a more pointed reference to the restorative ideology of degrowth.
“My hot blood's been burning for so many summers now. It's time to cool it down, wherever that leads. 'Cause all the beautiful girls, they will fade like the roses. And all the times they will change, it'll all come around.”
Lorde, “Stoned at the Nail Salon”
So is she happy or is she sad? This has been a fundamental question in discussion of the album online. Many fans perceived Solar Power as a sun-kissed reflection on how far she’s come, while others, notably the Guardian’s Laura Snapes and the New York Times’ Popcast, argued this was as sad a record as ever.
But the sad girl discourse misses a beat. Perhaps Popcast was right in saying the album was “suffering from over-explanation” — a malady maybe not helped by another piece adding more single-use paragraphs to the content landfill. Essentially, this is an album about both ends of the emotional spectrum, and neither. It doesn’t necessarily perform happiness or sadness in the way we might be used to in pop music. Instead, it’s about being present and content with both.
“Maybe it is sad,” Lorde told Snapes. “But I’m very comfortable in the periods of limbo, or times where I feel afraid or vulnerable.” Or as Robyn puts it in the interlude for Lorde’s “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)”: “Welcome to sadness: the temperature is unbearable until you face it.”
Lorde was inspired to go offline after reading Jenny Odell’s 2019 book How to Do Nothing.— The Lorde Cult (@TheLordeCult) June 25, 2021
The book taught her how to retrain her attention; she hopes Solar Power also does the same for her fans. pic.twitter.com/BYaTcwklbp
The truth is that Solar Power is a far less vulnerable record than Melodrama (2017), her last album that also happened to be one of the most influential pop records this decade. If that was about posting your L’s as a form of exorcism — “Liability”, much? — then this new sound is more about accepting the past (“Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)”) in order to find more joy in the present (“Oceanic Feeling”). The swagger of “Green Light” is now a quiet confidence, growing from a life of occasionally empty partying to something more radiant, more resolute.
Lorde dutifully mocks wellness culture (“Mood Ring”) — and instead taps into a wider cultural mass-movement embracing mindfulness as essential to living a full, human life. In 2021, that pursuit of inner peace has been embraced by artists as varied as Little Simz to Cassanda Jenkins. It’s a central theme of Marvel’s new Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings too — that knowing oneself in the context of the beautiful, flawed world around you is the secret to your true power, a resilience referred to by sentimental album closer “Oceanic Feeling”: “I just had to breathe and tune in.”
And this is the kernel of both Solar Power and How to Do Nothing: that being completely present in time, place, and context is the path to interconnectedness — and that is the beginnings of building an intersectional movement capable of resistance. “Simple awareness is the seed of responsibility,” Odell notes. This is Lorde’s resistance: she detaches herself in order to engage seriously, with her music, her fans, and the ethereal joy she breathes in from nature.
“Certain people would like to use technology to live longer, or forever,” Odell writes. “To such people I humbly propose a far more parsimonious way to live forever: to exit the trajectory of productive time, so that a single moment might open almost to infinity. As John Muir once said, ‘Longest is the life that contains the longest amount of time-effacing enjoyment.’”
While sirens blare and protests rage in the background to “Dominoes”, Lorde is exactly where she wants to be — the leader of her own regime, doing her own thing, in her own time. Or to quote Odelll once more, “I will participate, but not as asked.”
You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defend the planet and defeat poverty by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.