Lorde's 'Solar Power' Is A Whole Mood : Pop Culture Happy Hour Lorde became a pop superstar at 16 with her hit single "Royals" — winning two Grammy Awards and following up with her second album, Melodrama. The New Zealand singer's third album Solar Power finds the artist reflecting on stardom, boredom and the aftermath of a youth filled with debauchery. Reunited with Melodrama producer Jack Antonoff, Lorde brings a more subdued sound, positioning her as a worldly 24-year-old who's found peace with herself, while wondering what's next.

Lorde's 'Solar Power' Is A Whole Mood

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

In 2013, Lorde became a pop superstar on the strength of her song "Royals." The singer from New Zealand was just 16. Today, Lorde is out with her third album, "Solar Power." It finds the singer reflecting on stardom, boredom and the aftermath of a youth filled with debauchery.

I'm Stephen Thompson. And today, we are talking about Lorde's new album, "Solar Power," on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me is LaTesha Harris. She's an NPR Music contributor and an editorial assistant for the NPR podcast Louder Than A Riot. Hi, LaTesha.

LATESHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Stephen. Happy "Solar Power" day. Thank you for having me.

THOMPSON: It's great to have you. And joining us from Vero Beach, Fla., is NPR editor Cyrena Touros. Hi, Cyrena.

CYRENA TOUROS, BYLINE: Hey, Stephen. I'm at the optimal location to enjoy this summer album.

THOMPSON: You really are. You've - you're in a town with beach in its name. Rounding out our panel from her home in Nashville is NPR Music critic Ann Powers. Hey, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: I feel so happy to be with some of Lorde's contemporaries and peers here on this panel. I will provide the maternal perspective, I guess.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: You and I are Ma and Pa in (laughter)...

POWERS: We're Ma and Pa of Lorde.

THOMPSON: ...In this conversation.

POWERS: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: So "Solar Power" is Lorde's third album. The first, "Pure Heroine" - that's heroine with an E - put her on the map with an assist from her breakthrough single "Royals." The second album, "Melodrama," came out in 2017, was hugely well-received. It's a breakup record full of melancholy pop bangers. And now "Solar Power" has her back with a more subdued sound. Both the title track and the single "Stoned At The Nail Salon" position Lorde as a worldly and weary 24-year-old who's seen it all, found a bit of peace with her life and begun to wonder what's next.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONED AT THE NAIL SALON")

LORDE: (Singing) 'Cause all the music you loved at 16 you'll grow out of. And all the times they will change, it'll all come around. I don't know.

THOMPSON: Once again, she's working with producer Jack Antonoff, who works on absolutely everything these days. But Lorde is the one taking center stage throughout this record. LaTesha, I'm going to start with you. What do you think of "Solar Power?"

HARRIS: OK. So I am still sitting with "Solar Power," as I always do. You know, "Melodrama" and I didn't get along when we first met. But she wrestled me into submission, and here we are. What strikes me about this new record is, you know, Lorde's attempt to reconcile the healing properties of nature, you know, the wonders of the external world with the inner inherent anxiety of being a young adult and figuring out the meaning of life when you're a pop superstar.

I like that there are these lush, silky soundscapes. You know, it has more organic instrumentation than her previous records, contrasted with, you know, foreboding, introspective lyrics. Like, when I'm listening, I imagine Lorde in the center of a forest, collecting moss, speaking to rocks, casting spells - you know, Persephone-like songstress. You get lost in the background of these songs, which I think is the right move for an album inspired by nature. You know, we hear and feel the combination of every whisper, chord, note all at once like we would on a hike or camping trip.

THOMPSON: All right. How about you, Cyrena?

TOUROS: So this is Lorde's third album. And a lot of artists I really like have released their third albums this year, like Japanese Breakfast or Lucy Dacus or Julien Baker. To me, it's the album that sets the path of someone's career. So for Lorde, I was thinking about her status as a pop star and trying to figure out, what does it mean to be a pop star in 2021? And I think this is the record that cements her status as a pop star as almost accidental.

She's not like your Beyonces, your Gagas, your BTSes. She doesn't have this, like, multi-media marketing strategy, this - she's not like Taylor Swift. She's not dropping Easter eggs. I think she's just a writer. And, you know, the music is almost secondary to that. And there wasn't really a big wow vocal moment on this record. I think it was really about establishing her as somebody who has a career that goes beyond her hits like "Royals" or "Tennis Court."

Sonically, it was really interesting to me because when she said she visited Antarctica between writing "Melodrama" and this record, I thought she was going to go, like, full Kelly Lee Owens and make these, like, very chilly, electronic sort of songs inspired by that trip. And so it's interesting to me to see that she's gone a lot more, like, Sheryl Crow or Natasha Bedingfield, like mid-2000s, like, kind of sunny pop or, you know, more laid-back '70s vibes on this record.

But she does really interesting work with harmonies in the way that her voice interacts with each other. Like - actually, this is one of the first records I think that she allows other voices to sing those harmonies for her. Like, on "Solar Power," the lead single, she brings in Clairo and Phoebe Bridgers to sing the harmonies in the pre-chorus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLAR POWER")

LORDE, CLAIRO AND PHOEBE BRIDGERS: (Singing) Forget all of the tears that you've cried. It's over. It's a new state of mind. Are you coming, my baby?

TOUROS: So I think for me, overall, with "Solar Power," I had a hard time getting into it when she was kind of, like, up on a pedestal, trying to convey how wonderful and stable her life is now that she's gone off the grid. Pop artists don't owe us relatability. But I found that really hard to tap into in the middle of a very extended pandemic. But I think this album really unfolds in the second half, where she stops telling us what to think and starts admitting that she doesn't know all of the answers yet.

THOMPSON: Interesting. All right. How about you, Ann?

POWERS: Well, Cyrena, like you, I was a Lorde fan from the get-go. And, LaTesha, I'm happy you're coming around because I do think she's one of the most intriguing and challenging pop writers out there. And I mean challenging not in terms of Kelly Lee O. in style like you're saying - like, experimental - but challenging in that she challenges us to think about kind of 21st century life.

You know, the first time I heard Lorde, I was in an Austin hotel room, and someone posted "Tennis Court." And immediately, I was just intrigued by this young voice that was both utterly, you know, emotional and also just satirical in a way. And that's what I want to talk about. I want to talk about Lorde and satire. But first, I also want to mention that I think this is a great California record. Everybody's got to make a California record. And here is Lorde's, and she is handing it to us on a platter. It's called "Solar Power."

(LAUGHTER)

POWERS: You know, she's on the beach throughout the record, but it's not just the locale. And it's not just being stoned at the nail salon. I can see that nail salon on York Avenue and Eagle Rock, by the way. I used to go there all the time. It's the sound. And, you know, I can't get away from Joni Mitchell, and this is a very Joni Mitchell-referential record. Of course, Joni had a record called "Hissing Of Summer Lawns" that I feel is a very major touchstone for this record. But I also hear other California records. I hear Haim. I hear Fleetwood Mac. I hear the Beach Boys. And this really reminds me of "Poses" by Rufus Wainwright. It has a similar kind of, like, you know, bright, young star feeling very decadent and feeling very exhausted.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting. I feel like every track on this record could be prefaced by the word mood with a colon.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: You know? You know?

POWERS: Oh my gosh. That reminds me - that makes me want to play "Mood Ring" because I think the harmonies, Cyrena, you were talking about, that remind me of a band like Haim - it has the lyrics that are both yearning and completely cutting and hilarious. It has the beachy feel, and it has the reference to late capitalism, right? And, like, this commodity that will change your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOOD RING")

LORDE: Let's go. (Singing) Ladies, begin your sun salutations. Pluto in Scorpio generation. Love and light. You can burn sage, and I'll cleanse the crystals. We can get high but only if the wind blows just right, right, right, right.

HARRIS: Lorde is just flipping the bird to all of us on this record. I think she is satirizing her fan base, satirizing, you know, this, like, messiah status we've assigned to her, satirizing her own views of wealth. And, like, she's making fun of herself in the song for being, you know, one of those astrology, tarot babes while making fun of, like, the '60s hippies that came before her and where she gets that from. Also, for the record, I feel like I have to say I've been a Lorde fan since, you know, "Tennis Court" and "Love Club EP." I'm not a hater. I promise.

POWERS: It's OK. It's good to evolve in your fandom. Maybe that even makes it deeper, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I do think it's interesting that you guys are contrasting this as a sunnier record as opposed to some of the more nighttime themes on "Melodrama." It's interesting. As sunny as this record is and as much of a California record as it is, it also, to me, does feel very interior. And I think, you know, we've thrown out a lot of comparisons. I want to bring up a really, really recent one, which is the newest Billie Eilish record, "Happier Than Ever," which is very interior, very kind of whispered directly from her lips to your ears and very direct but kind of quiet and subdued and a more contemplative sound. And I think the spareness of this record really stood out to me. As sunny as some of the vibes are and as much as she's, as you kind of say, self-satirizing and singing about, like, being on the beach, and I'm a prettier Jesus and all that, it does have a spareness to it that I was kind of surprised by. I expected her to go - before I heard the first singles from this record, I kind of expected her to go in a little bit of a busier direction.

POWERS: That's interesting. I don't know if I vibe with your description of it as spare. But I do think there's a way in which the confessional elements of the record and the observational elements of the record combine to set Lorde apart in the songs and to - she feels very alone in every song, I think. I mean, you know, she's, you know, going to people's parties wandering deaf, dumb and blind. Here I am quoting Joni Mitchell again. But she's in that Joni position of, like, I'm in the corner watching this, and I'm going to tell you what I'm experiencing. And I'm not going to reach out. Maybe - is that what you're getting at? Like, the songs - they stand apart for me.

TOUROS: I think they feel more self-contained. And I think they're maybe not sparser, but subtler is maybe, like, the better description of it.

HARRIS: It's a matter of isolation. Like, Lorde makes these - just like you're saying, Ann, like, Lorde is an observer. And she makes astounding music because of the way she connects with people from a distance. Like, she evaluates while, you know, overwhelmed with the different ideas of love she has going on in her head but not really connecting, like, in person or, like, really getting to the thing. So it's, like, very detached sentiment and feeling, and I think maybe that's what you're getting at, Stephen. Like, I think it's not necessarily sparse because the soundscapes are so big. But the feelings behind them and, like, what she's actually saying beneath everything is like, I love so deeply, but I still feel very alone. It's like being at the beach when you're really, really sad and just, like, staring at the sun and being like, why am I not happy right now?

POWERS: It's also, you know, the way an overthinker might experience the world. You know, I mean, she's such an intellectual. And she's so referential throughout this record. She's living in her own world, you know, that she's sharing with us in these songs as she moves through the world of relationships of landscapes. I mean, just look at the - any song. But I'm just going to pick out "California."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA")

LORDE: (Singing) ...Hollywood when Carole called my name, I stood up, the room exploded, and I knew that's it, I'll never be the same. That's when the door swung open, and the voice said, we're glad you came.

POWERS: It starts out with the line, once upon in Hollywood when Carole called my name. You know, that's got to be Carole King, right? Later she refers to "California Love," West Coast hip-hop. She talks about going to the Canyon Store, which is a store where all the singer-songwriters in the '70s went. So she's moving through the world and her own world at the same time. I feel that very much in these songs.

TOUROS: Yeah, I mean, another example of that - like, besides referring to the outside world, she's referring to her own work, too. Like on a song "The Man With The Axe," I think that's this record's "Liability." Like on "Liability," she sings about, you know, dancing alone in her living room. You know, she's a forest fire. And on "Man With The Axe," she's saying, you know, she's found someone to dance with her. But then he cuts her down like a pine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAN WITH THE AXE")

LORDE: (Singing) I've got hundreds of gowns. I've got paintings in frames and a throat that fills with panic every festival day. Dutifully falling apart for the Princess of Norway.

TOUROS: So at that - I find that super interesting that she's, you know, almost making jokes about her own work.

THOMPSON: Sure.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, even on "Secrets From A Girl (Who's Seen It All)," she, like, takes a chord from "Ribs" and flips it to, like, speak to herself even more. And I think, like, she's speaking to a lot of different people at once, like her younger self, her fans, her parents and their generation, her lovers, her ambitions. And it kind of feels like she's caught in that liminal space of, like, trying to understand the past while, like, plan for the future. And she just can't really enjoy the present. So I feel like throughout this entire album, like, Lorde's just trying to, like, parse through how much of herself she can give in either direction, you know?

TOUROS: My favorite song on this record is the last one, "Oceanic Feeling." She's singing, like, can you hear the waves and the cicadas all around? And then she does another verse. And then she says, I can make anything real. And I think that unlocked the whole record for me of like, you can try to speak something into existence. But I think if you push it too hard, you're going to end up unhappy.

You can choose your own happiness is really the message I took away from the end of this record and that line. I can make anything real. I can find happiness in any situation. I can take myself away from reality if I need to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OCEANIC FEELING")

LORDE: (Singing) Can you hear the waves and the cicadas all around? I can make anything real. Rays so hot, it's a summer body. Every day is blue and never cloudy. Don't look down. I can make anything real. In the future...

POWERS: I find that song fascinating, too. It also has the most poignant lyrics on the album, which is in the future if I have a daughter, will she have my waist or my widow's peak, my dreamer's disposition or my wicked streak? And it goes on. It's just like - it steps outside of all that archness that Lorde has so much, you know, that I love but I also find limiting in terms of the emotional connection. And here she is just feeling. And it's really, really beautiful.

But the question I have is what the hell is going on in that last - very last verse? Like, when she says she's building a pyre, and she is going to step into the choir, is she self-sacrificing? Are we having a kind of "Wicker Man" moment here? What the heck is going on?

HARRIS: OK. I really think that Lorde - this is Lorde's sacrificial, like, album. Like, she's really saying, I am no longer a pop star. I don't want to be a pop star for y'all. I don't want to be, like, a role model for any depressed (ph) girls anymore. Like, stop. So I think, like, her taking off her robes and stepping into the choir is this, like, transcendent moment of being like, I'm just like everybody else, even though she's really not.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: So I'm hoping it's a satirical moment again. But I think, actually, in this moment, it is her being like, yo, this isn't, like, who I want to be anymore. Stop ascribing this, like, feeling to me.

TOUROS: I totally agree with you, LaTesha.

THOMPSON: Well, we have, as you can tell, a lot of thoughts about Lorde and about "Solar Power." We would imagine that you, too, have lots of thoughts about Lorde and about "Solar Power." You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us @pchh. When we come back, it'll be time to talk about what's making us happy this week. So come right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON: Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It is time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, what's making us happy this week. LaTesha Harris, what's making you happy this week?

HARRIS: OK. So I am very late on this train, but I just read Sally Rooney's "Normal People," and it was very disturbing. So I'm very excited to watch the TV show and be even more disturbed. That's making me very happy.

THOMPSON: Many, many tears have been shed in my living room over that TV show, so you're in for a treat. So that's "Normal People" by Sally Rooney. LaTesha Harris, thanks so much. Cyrena Touros, what's making you happy this week?

TOUROS: One thing that's maybe quieting my brain and giving me reprieve is actually a song called "Amaneki" by two artists. One is called Sweet William. He's a Japanese producer. And the other is a singer - Ichiko Aoba.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMANEKI")

ICHIKO AOBA: (Singing in Japanese).

TOUROS: And it's just very ambient, beautiful. The production value is super subtle but super detailed. It's like floating away on a cloud. I think I ended up listening to it for about 12 hours straight. I put it on every night now when I go to bed. And I wake up, and it's still playing in the morning. And it, no doubt, is going to be the top song of my Spotify Wrapped this year.

THOMPSON: Yeah. Anything that you can listen to as ambient music for 12 hours I want to hear. Thank you so much, Cyrena Touros. Ann Powers, what's making you happy this week?

POWERS: I am finding joy in a new television series called "Reservation Dogs." It's about four young kids, teenagers in Oklahoma on the rez who kind of turn to a life of crime and justice. It's directed by Sterlin Harjo, who is a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. It's just such a great show. It's a teen drama. It's also completely referential to, you know, Quentin Tarantino and to just the whole history of indie film. It's worldbuilding at its very best, and the young actors are just - they're magnetic. I just want to watch them for hours on end. Wonderful, wonderful show - "Reservation Dogs." I think you guys are doing a show on it, aren't you, Stephen?

THOMPSON: We have an episode about "Reservation Dogs" coming early next week. You can take this weekend to get caught up on the show as best you can to prepare for that discussion. Thank you, Ann Powers. That's "Reservation Dogs."

What is making me happy this week is, in contrast to all of the luminous and hard-hitting entertainment that you guys have recommended, it is a band from Russia called Little Big. And Little Big has a series of kind of viral videos coming out of Russia. They were supposed to be Russia's representative in the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest before the Eurovision Song Contest got canceled that year. And I remember thinking, like, is this maybe too stupid and outrageous for the Eurovision Song Contest?

POWERS: Wow, wow.

HARRIS: No such thing.

THOMPSON: And when I say stupid, I mean that in the most loving and openhearted possible way. Their songs are so ridiculous and satirical and loud. I want to play a little bit of a song called "Hypnodancer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYPNODANCER")

LITTLE BIG: (Singing) Cannot let you slip away. Hypnodancer, hey, hey. Hypnodancer, hey, hey. Hypnodancer, hey, hey. Go hypnodancer.

POWERS: We all need some stupid in our life right now, I think, really.

THOMPSON: We really do need something stupid in our lives right now. And when you go, please take my recommendation. Watch the video for "Hypnodancer." This video is so packed with jokes and just visual gags and silliness. I highly recommend it. Little Big is the band. They've got a bunch of videos, each more ridiculous than the one before. That is what is making me happy this week.

If you want links from what we recommended - and I'm sure you do - plus more recommendations, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me at @idislikestephen. You can follow Ann at @annkpowers. You can follow Cyrena at @cyrenatouros. And you can find LaTesha at @latesha_eharris. You can follow editor Jessica Reedy at @jessica_reedy. You can follow producer Candice Lim at @thecandicelim and producer Jared Gair at @jaredmgair. That's G-A-I-R. You can follow producer Mike Katzif at @mikekatzif. That's K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello Come In, provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. Thanks to you all for being here.

TOUROS: Thank you, Stephen.

HARRIS: Thank you.

POWERS: Thank you, Stephen.

THOMPSON: Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all right back here next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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