If you are a fan of Saoirse Ronan and you keep up with her career, you might notice she is subjected to a sort of curse of the prodigy: Since excellence is the baseline for her, critical praises for her performances are just written in passing, almost as if her achievements were … boring. Many times, I’ve seen critics reviewing her films with lines such as “the real standout performance is” or “the actual surprise was____ performance”, usually her male co-lead. Hell, even with Little Women, when cast alongside a powerhouse such as Florence Pugh, I remember critics talking about how great Timothee Chalamet’s or Emma Watson performances were. This is not a surprise, as the (mostly US-based) media, is obsessed with the ABC (Always Be Creating new narratives out of thin air).
Now, good criticism should always shape an artist into feeling they could do much better. But every once in a while, when the bar has been raised way up, can we just praise them just like we did when they wowed us that first time?
Let’s talk about another Millennial prodigy (or is she a Zoomer? In-between?), who also comes from a magical, enchanted island: Lorde. Can we just acknowledge how lucky we are to have Lorde as a mainstream artist, if not as a consistent hitmaker, as one of the most influential forces in Pop music now and for decades to come?
I say this because with Solar Power, she faced an even harder task than following up a hit breakout album: Following up a sophomore that will widely be regarded as one of the greatest albums of the 2010s and her consolidation as an artist. So the question is, what do we (music nerds, fandoms, and critics) want from someone like Lorde?
At Metacritic, Solar Power currently has a score of 69, which is nice… but there is this pervasive feeling that the album is a bit of a misstep if we go by what’s written in Reddit and forum boards … and well, basically there. She’s gotten her first proper mixed to low reviews from places like A.V. Club, Spin, and The Independent. Her first C’s and even D’s after years of straight-A’s. But if we go by the analogy of critics being teachers (and I’m being much too generous here), did the star student got the answers wrong? Did she not put enough effort? Or is it, perhaps, that our expectations are misplaced, which is a perfect irony, so perfect that it requires you to switch to the words “very appropriate,” as this is an album all about coping with the expectations of others, knowing you might not meet them and to find your peace within that maelstrom of pressure? Hey, I think most of us Millennials can empathize with that, even coming from a superstar!
The first time I listened to Solar Power, I loved it. The second time, I was baffled, annoyed by its sonic texture and the psychedelic voice work Lorde does throughout, it felt like a sham mock of that 60s-70s California-sound. But the great thing about listening to an album multiple times, when you are not feeling it the first times, is that they can soften you up, but in like the way a puppy warms the heart of an older, crankier dog. When you realize that Lorde loves Pop and reminds us often that she takes it seriously, you realize this is an earnest tribute to that sound, that way of singing and that way of writing. It’s just colored by our lenses post… f—k, post every shitty thing that has happened in the last 20 years.
This is a great album, this is a cohesive album. Like Melodrama, it’s pretty much a concept album. I don’t wanna be the guy who says “all these critics are showing their asses and will have to write reassessments in five, ten or twenty years from now,” because that’s a cornerstone of art criticism. But this is a great album, on par with any of the best records of contemporaries. The baseline is way up. Of course, it’s not as good as Melodrama or Pure Heroine, but the sample size is three.
The one thing that Solar Power doesn’t do that Melodrama and Pure Heroine do is that it is much harder to unpackage. But that’s a plus in my book. Pure Heroine dropped and blew up into the scene like In Utero, and Melodrama was just perfect. The pieces of Solar Power are harder to assemble, but they are all there. This is an album where she is putting herself out there, even more than with Melodrama, but it is carefully disguised by its “sunny” sonic landscape, as every other review has mentioned. It’s a dark album, the kind of album that makes sense, first, after her beloved dog died and the Christchurch shootings, and second, as a New Zealander experiencing the pandemic, isolated and safe on a countrywide level, but aware that the world outside was (is) burning. Not unlike the Climate Crisis too, when the connotations of things like the summer and the sun sound more and more like something you fear, instead of something you praise.
What many critics and fans miss about Lorde is that she is not, nor has she ever been the coolly detached, sardonic girl. In fact, she has always been painfully earnest. Same thing with Millennials and Zoomers in general. In fact, she embodies Millennial-Zoomer emotional earnestness, which is the only way we have managed to deal with our angst. As for Solar Power, time will prove the album right, but hindsight has to be earned too.
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