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Solar Power Ed Power , August 25th, 2021 07:38

Lorde's third album is a deceptively sun-kissed record underpinned by a hint of menace, finds Ed Power

We live in an era of pop stars so hypermodern – so glitteringly unfathomable – they feel like characters from science fiction. Their careers play out not in the album charts or the review columns, but on streaming playlists and in the comments sections beneath their Instagram posts. And rather than the old imperial measurements of units shifted or concert tickets sold, their influence is calculated in algorithmic buzz and in how much of the conversational bandwidth they occupy.

Amidst this ongoing recalibration of what it is to be an artist and a celebrity, and where one ends and the other begins, the trajectory of Ella Yelich-O'Connor, AKA Lorde, feels reassuringly old-fashioned. Her new album is called Solar Power but, just like the moon, Lorde is an artist with distinct phases.

Hers is a very traditional artistic progression, then, each chapter in her creative journey clearly delineated. The teenage melancholia of her 2013 debut Pure Heroine was followed by the early adulthood overload of 2017's Melodrama. And now there is Solar Power, the folk horror comedown record that reunites her with Melodrama producer Jack Antonoff and is variously influenced by Ari Aster's Midsommar, the death of the hippy dream, and the devastating fragility of All Saints' 'Pure Shores'.

It's wonderful – but with a background hum of rising dread. The tone that comes through is Laurel Canyon with just a hint of something smudging the horizon – a cloud suddenly blotting the sun perhaps, or the taste of smoke from an approaching wildfire. That gear-shift is manifested through hazy guitars and in Yelich O'Connor's vocals, which at moments suggest Choirgirl Hotel vintage Tori Amos surrounded by scary Swedish ladies in white ceremonial garb, and at others a manifestation of the vibe Taylor Swift was chasing on the Folklore cover art.

Yelich O'Connor has explained that she was reading up on '60s cults and how good intentions often paved the way to dark endings. There was always a messiah figure leading the way, too – which perhaps explains the tiniest pinprick of menace that manifests on single 'Solar Power', as she describes herself as a "prettier Jesus." She doubles down on that theme of wishful thinking leading to unhappy destinations on 'Mood Ring'. It's a satire of wellness culture – of trying to fill the void in your soul with esoteric junk – but one that doesn't land its punches so much as slither beneath the skin.

But Solar Power isn't all blinding bright horror. 'Secrets From A Girl (Who's Seen It All)' is a reminder from Lorde that all things will pass – heartache and post-adolescent growing pains included. The track spirals into a flourish of humour, too, as pop star Robyn delivers an ersatz cabin crew address to passengers jetting away from emotional trauma ("Welcome to sadness/ The temperature is unbearable until you face it").

That upbeat sensibility reassesses itself on closing track 'Oceanic Feeling' – the title from a phrase coined by Freud which he characterised as the sense of "being one with the external world as a whole." "On the beach I'm building a pyre," Lorde sings, adding that she plans to "take off my robes and step into the choir." As she delivers those lines you feel the sky rushing down and the earth falling away.

It's menacing, calming, earthy and completely otherworldly. And an appropriately unnerving conclusion to a project that, for all its bruises and emotional scarring, find a way to be flawless. And which confirms Lorde as continuing to inhabit a space-time continuum entirely of her own devising.