In the summer of 2017, we took a family holiday to France. One of the albums we played on repeat as we drove was Lorde’s Melodrama. It’s a beautiful, moody, layered, self-reflective, electro-pop album, and although not as commercially successful as her first album Pure Heroine, it’s my favourite of the two. And despite the lyrics not being in the least bit summery, whenever I re-listen to it, it takes me back.
So here we are, four years later, and Lorde has released her third album. Arguably Solar Power is a way more suitable summer listen than its predecessor. It’s a more laid-back, indie-folk affair, with psychedelic influences (both musical and, I suspect, actual!). The lyrics are far less explicit, though you may wish to give the album cover art a miss!
It’s an intensely autobiographical album, with throwaway lines alluding to incredibly specific moments in the artist’s life. If you’re the kind of fan who knows everything about Lorde, I imagine it would keep you geeking out for ages. I’m certainly not that person. But it also grapples with themes like celebrity, anxiety, the dangers of tech-addiction and social media, bereavement, and the climate crisis.
And it is also a deeply spiritual album.
That much is clear from the opening track, The Path, in which she sings:
‘Now 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
‘Cause we are all broken and sad
Where arе the dreams that we had?
Can’t find thе dreams that we had
Let’s hope the sun will show us the path’
In an interview with the New York Times, Lorde said:
“I’m aware of the way people look at me… I can feel the huge amount of love and devotion that people have for me — and for people in my position — and straightaway, I wanted to be like, ‘I’m not the one that’s worthy of your devotion. I’m essentially like you.’ … My kids — my community — they’re expecting spiritual transcendence from me, from these works. ‘I need Lorde to come back and tell me how to feel, tell me how to process this period in my life!’ I was like, oh, man, I don’t know if I can help you with that. But what I do know is that if we all look up here, it’s going to help you a lot!”
That self-awareness and redirection towards something bigger is a theme that runs right through the album. This track is really the prelude, depicting her like a John the Baptist figure, aware that she is not the light, but one who has come to make straight The Path and point towards the light (John 1:6-8). I mean that quite literally, because the whole album is a celebration of a particular source of light: the Sun.
The second track, Solar Power, was the first single from the album, released to coincide with the solar eclipse. It’s a feel-good celebration song, well timed for a world that’s emerging out of lockdowns and reacquainting itself with the sun.
But it’s a strangely uncomfortable listen. There’s a deliberate cult-like feel to it, especially in the music video, where crowds gather around to hear her wisdom, and despite having rejected the title of Saviour in the previous track, she can’t resist calling herself,
‘kinda like a prettier Jesus.’
The tongue-in-cheek and sometimes overtly satirical nature of the album is disorienting, but it’s also part of its charm. The whole project is a search for direction, accompanied by redirection and misdirection. Lorde knows she isn’t the answer, so she redirects our search towards the natural world, whilst also poking fun at those who embrace the fadiness of New Age. Whilst proselytising about the sun, you get the sense that she knows that’s not where all the answers can be found. She’s on a journey of exploration herself, and for the time being she’s just pointing people to the biggest source of light she can see, hoping that even if we can’t find answers there, we may find some temporary relief.
But Lorde’s relationship with the sun and the natural world is complex. The very flow of the tracks takes you on a journey exploring that complexity, from the beach of track two to California, a place that made her the star she is, but a place that she ultimately had to leave. The glamour of the Golden State is then contrasted by track four, where she reflects on the lofty themes of life, celebrity, and the passing of time, and concludes:
‘I don’t know,
Maybe I’m just stoned at the nail salon, again.’
The drug-induced high of track two that pointed her to the heavens has now become introspective. It’s a meditation on Ecclesiastes, in a strip mall. And that ‘again’ is haunting.
From the chair in the salon, she moves up to dizzying heights, both thematically and literally. Fallen Fruit is a song about the climate crisis, which she wrote whilst travelling on a plane. The irony isn’t lost on her, as she names Nissan and aeroplanes as major contributors to our ecological emergency. But rather than explore her own complicity – in this track at least – she speaks to her forefathers. As she has said in a recent interview,
‘This is me sort of talking to my parent’s generation, being like “Do you know what you’ve done? How could you have left us with this?”’
She sums up her climate anxiety succinctly, expressing a tension that extends to pretty much every theme explored through the album,
‘How can I love what I know I am gonna lose?
Don’t make me choose.’
The song aches with a longing for Eden, and despairs how the decisions of previous generations who ‘had no idea the dreams we had were far too big’ have meant we have lost ‘the halls of splendour where the apple trees grew’ and have ‘left us dancing on the fallen fruit’. It’s all very Genesis 3 and Romans 8. Creation is subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by that of our forefathers. It awaits liberation from its bondage to decay.
Hold that thought.
If track five is a message to a previous generation, track six – Secrets from a Girl (who’s seen it all) – is a message to a previous self. The two songs are linked not only by this device of wisdom communicated with hindsight but also, as suggested from the spoken outro, by the idea of it being delivered from an aeroplane. Perhaps you can only truly reflect on lessons from the past – personal or cosmic – once you’ve elevated yourself above them? But at the end of her accumulated wisdom for her younger self, all she can really say is:
‘Your emotional baggage can be picked up at carousel number two
Please be careful so it doesn’t fall onto someone you love
When we’ve reached your final destination, I will leave you to it
You’ll be fine
I’m just gonna show you in and, um…
You can stay as long as you need to get familiar with the feeling
And then when you’re ready, I’ll be outside, and…
We can go look at the sunrise by euphoria, mixed with existential vertigo?
It’s not the most satisfying ending. But it reflects the fact that if the sun is where you’re looking for validation, perhaps you’re never going to find answers. Euphoria and existential vertigo may be the best you’ll get.
I see this song as being something of a transition, leading into three tracks that explore love (The man with the axe), the quest for Utopia (Dominoes), and grief at the experience of bereavement (Big Star). Each is a strong song in its own right, but track eight, Dominoes is the most interesting to me, continuing the themes from Solar Power and setting us up for the outright satire that is soon to come. Having couched her own search in New Age language, Lorde now pokes fun at others who seek satisfaction through experimentation, drugs, and constant reinvention, and questions whether it will ever truly work.
She personifies this trend in the form of a man – Mr Start-Again – who takes delight in the moment, treats every chance that comes his way like a line of dominoes to be flicked down, then he picks them up again and reinvents himself, becoming a stranger but tamer version of himself. Doing yoga with Uma Thurman’s mother. Exchanging one narcotic for another. Each reinvention is a fad.
‘Just another phase you’re rushing on through.
Go all New Age, outrunning your blues.’
But the blues catch up with her, and this song is followed by Big Star, a track that explores her grief at losing her dog Pearl. Lorde has spoken in various places about her love for Pearl, and how he gave her stability in the midst of her struggles with fame and its effects on her mental health. As she has expressed herself, the grief she experienced represented more than just the loss of a beloved pet:
“It was absolutely, you’re right, something bigger… It was everything… Grief is a really transformative force. I’d never experienced it fully like that, and it makes you question everything. It overturns a lot.”
I think that explains a lot of what motivates this album. Beneath the sunny themes and tones, the indie-folk melodies and the celebration of nature, there lies a grief. Grief at the loss of anonymity, freedom, innocence, love, loved ones, and in some sense, the world itself.
It’s no surprise that this album was preceded by a trip to Antarctica and a book about climate change. On many levels, Lorde is grappling with the grief of realising the frailty of existence. So she says,
‘This record is about how precious life is, really.’
And track 10 sums this all up with an impassioned plea. Leader of a New Regime is an interlude. A 94 second reprieve where she asks:
‘Where’s it going to go from here? Whether it’s culturally, politically, environmentally, socially, spiritually. I felt that desire for doing something new.’
It’s a track set in the future, when the world has become near-uninhabitable, and where collectively we have experienced the bereavement and grief at the loss of existence as we know it. And one of the few remaining survivors pleads:
‘Won’t somebody, anybody, be the leader of a new regime?
Free the keepers of the burnt-out scene another day
Lust and paranoia reign supreme
We need the leader of a new regime’.
On one level it’s a plea for us to stand up and take responsibility for our planet now, before it’s too late. But I also think it represents a deeper longing for someone who can really deal with the entrenched issues at play in our world. The haunting feelings of meaninglessness; the loss of Eden and the pain of dancing on fallen fruit; the inability to save the ones we love, or deal with the problem of death.
At the end of the day, the sun can’t provide us with all the answers. We need a new leader. A new humanity. To use the language of Scripture, we need a new Adam.
The penultimate song of the album turns the tongue-in-cheek ambiguity of earlier tracks into full-on satire. Mood Ring explores what it feels like to be lost and trying to find connection and make sense of things, personally, emotionally and spiritually.
‘I can’t feel a thing
I keep looking at my mood ring
Tell me how I’m feeling
Floating away, floating away’
The mood ring is a metaphor for the things we look to to help us make sense of what we’re feeling, or even identify what we’re feeling when we’re unable to do it for ourselves. We outsource our emotional life to different fads; horoscopes, diets, substances, celebrity news, pseudo-spiritual practices and so on. ‘Let’s fly somewhere eastern, they’ll have what I need‘ she sings. It doesn’t matter where, just as long as it’s eastern, because it’s all about the journey and the vibe.
Even worship of her beloved sun receives a little ridicule,
‘Ladies, begin your sun salutations,
transcendental in your meditations.’
This song a stinging, but light-hearted, mockery of pick-and-choose spirituality. And the fact that it’s all packaged as a catchy, well-crafted, sub-four-minute pop song is a beautiful way of the medium mirroring the message. In our quest for meaning, we so easily find ourselves being drawn to the superficial, easily-digestible, pop-answers.
As the album is coming towards its conclusion, like the Earth finishing its daily rotation, she sings,
‘Take me to some kinda place (Anywhere)
Watch the sun set, look back on my life.
I just wanna know, will it be alright?’
And that’s the question upon which the final track lingers. Oceanic Feeling is a long reflection on the past, and a series of questions about the future. It considers the repeated patterns of time, and the need to ‘breathe and tune in.’ It’s a reflection on what we have inherited from our parents, and what we – should we become parents – will pass on to our children.
The picture it leaves us with is of someone catching a fish, and gutting it, preparing to eat it. One with nature. The circle of life.
‘Slidin’ the knife under the skin
Grateful for this offering
And all the livin’ things under the sun
Under the sun’
Under the sun. That repeated phrase from Ecclesiastes.
And the album ends with this parting reflection:
‘Oh, was enlightenment found?
No, but I’m tryin’, takin’ it one year at a time
Oh, oh, can you hear the sound?
It’s shimmerin’ higher
On the beach, I’m buildin’ a pyre
(Use the wood brought in by the tide)
I know you’ll show me how, I’ll know when it’s time
To take off my robes and step into the choir’
So the album has brought us full circle, ending as it began with a personal, autobiographical track, confessing the limits of the artist’s knowledge and ability to lead us to answers. I don’t know who the ‘you’ is who will ultimately tell her when her time has come – the listener? The sun? A divine being? But if The Path expressed a hope that the sun would show us the way, Oceanic Feeling admits that it ultimately couldn’t.
From beginning to end, then, this is an album about a spiritual quest. There is so much about the songs I don’t resonate with. How could I? I don’t share the artist’s hyperspecific biographical experiences; nor her experience of extreme fame in her teenage years; her experimentation with New Age, crystals, or substances, or her ability to detach from the rest of the world while she reinvents herself for a few years. But I don’t think you need to be able to resonate with those things any more than the reader of Ecclesiastes needs to have followed the author down the path of hedonism to share his quest for meaning ‘under the sun.’ The search, the needs and the longings are universal.
In this album, Lorde has narrated her spiritual quest in real time, agonising over the scrutiny her fame has brought her, whilst also inviting it, and inviting us to join her in her journey. If you were a youth pastor with a penchant for puns, you could go through each track and exchange every mention of the Sun for the Son and you’d have yourself quite a gospel presentation.
In track after track, Lorde points away from herself towards something else. The biggest, most powerful thing she can observe. Even as she does so, I think she recognises that she’s not yet landed on the answers for which she longs. And from a Christian perspective I want to say – echoing Romans 1:20 and Psalm 19 – that the reason is that Creation is engaging in the very same project. The sun, the moon, and the stars are pointing away from themselves to their Creator and Redeemer, and declaring ‘if you’re looking for a Saviour, it’s not me.’
I don’t think Lorde’s journey is over yet. I think there’s more exploration to be done. I hope she finds the One she’s looking for.