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Lorde of light

By Annicka Koteh Published Aug 06, 2021 6:00 am

Lately, I’ve struggled to get some sun. My mom’s all about drawing the curtains to let the beams in. Sunlight is a mood booster, she says, as do the scientists who’ve discovered its link to endorphins. So over quarantine, Mom started bugging me to sit by our biggest windows for a daily dose of vitamin D. 

I can’t be bothered most of the time. What’s the healing power of sunlight in the grand scheme of things, when it’s the light from my devices keeping me tethered to the outside world? The soundtrack of this sorry season isn’t supposed to sound like sunshine. And then Lorde decides to end her four-year hiatus with an ode to the sun, summer, and the solace found in them. 

There’s a lot to unpack with every record, and even more so when you consider them as one girl’s journey, journaled through song. Maybe I think that because I’ve always charted her growth against mine.

Ella Yelich O’Connor knows how to make an entrance. Of course, she timed the official release of her single Solar Power to this year’s only solar eclipse. The album of the same name drops on Aug. 20, in eco-friendly Music Boxes that come with download codes instead of CDs. You might credit her Antarctican excursion two years ago for the flash of inspiration, but the truth is that this modest ingenuity is just classic Lorde. “I’m not a climate activist,” she maintains. “I’m a pop star... There is a lot I don’t know.”

And yet Lorde seems older and wiser. There’s a lot to unpack with every record, and even more so when you consider them as one girl’s journey, journaled through song. Maybe I think that because I’ve always charted her growth against mine. Ella is barely two years older than me, and by happenstance, her music has landed at pivotal points: “Pure Heroine” (2013) in my sophomore year of high school, “Melodrama” (2017) in my sophomore year of college, and now “Solar Power” (2021) in the second year of my first job. 

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The story starts before the Spotify era. Sixteen-year-old Ella had just burst onto — no, blazed up — the scene with Royals, but it was another track that got me hooked. When I heard the opening synths of 400 Lux on an 8tracks mixtape, I didn’t realize it would be about falling in “like.”

Lorde sings about the slow burn with somebody who buys her orange juice and picks her up, in a vehicle fueled by simmering chemistry. And yes, the yearning reads a bit like a fantasy, but the attainable sort. I loved 400 Lux for the realism painted in poetic precision, the kind all her songs drip with. 

“Pure Heroine” is decidedly not about grand romantic gestures, nor a romanticized picture of adolescence. From Royals to Team to White Teeth Teens, she embraces being a scrappy outsider: the kind of girl who favors “counting dollars on the train” over jet planes, Cadillac coasts, and celebrity luxury. 

But the twist in “Pure Heroine” –– which, at first listen, seems stubborn in its refusal of bright lights — is Lorde’s self-doubt. There’s the self-aware bravery of Still Sane, where Ella fears riding the wave of fame, that she’s “not in the swing of things, yet.” Because haven’t all of us feared how good things might still change for the worse in the long run?

And Bravado has been my go-to power song for a long time now, since my introverted self had to step into bigger roles in high school. It takes a “switch flipped” in me to speak up, whether in classrooms before or conference calls today, but true to Lorde, “I learned not to want / the quiet of the room with no one around to find me out.” 

I miss that most of all — feeding off the energy of people face-to-face, side-by-side. Listening to their stories up close and not through my laptop speakers.

Come college, I’d pop my earphones in and blast Bravado on the way to competitions, presentations. I brought that stiff high school side along: the severe overthinking, with academics and org life front and center. But on the nights I was messier (and looking back, I wish there were more of those), Lorde’s second album fit the scene. 

Where “Pure Heroine” had Ella steely and controlled, “Melodrama” saw her reeling from a breakup and ready to pound her feelings out. The result was a house party captured in one album, and in turn, capturing the best (and worst) parts of college. A little bit of feeling too much, drinking too much, and just enjoying everyone’s collective youth at a rave too much, because “maybe all this is the party / maybe the tears and the highs we breathe.” 

I miss that most of all — feeding off the energy of people face-to-face, side-by-side. Listening to their stories up close and not through my laptop speakers. I’m an introvert who dreads small talk and bumping into acquaintances, but even I mourn the spontaneity of in-person interactions. In “Melodrama” fashion, I’m okay making mistakes as long as they’re memorable. 

Online life doesn’t scoot over for that. Everything feels a bit more deliberate when it’s typed out, versus the casual chatter of office culture. There’s less breathing space between one call and the next, versus physical trips to your next meeting room. That’s not to say the office would be any better right now — I can’t imagine the paranoia about safety bleeding into every move and task.

With that, you’d expect Lorde — ruminator superior — to sing along the lines of SadGirl or Riot Grrrl, especially in these crazy times. But of course the only thing we can expect from her is the unexpected. So she goes prancing across sand with a hippie posse in Solar Power, lifting her arms like a sun nymph and just positively vibing. The production sounds like a drive down to the beach. Everyone croons breezy harmonies. I literally cried, even though Lorde says to “forget your tears” in this one.

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Because, yes, Lorde, I did feel it “kicking in” — it being a little more hope than usual. It being the Solar Power I needed to barrel through a Friday workload before the weekend. It also being a reminder to unplug eventually, since Lorde also sings about throwing her cellphone into the ocean, har-har.

Admittedly, she’s always seemed freewheeling, what with her frenetic twitching onstage, the witchy fashion, the gaps between albums — but the way she’s let loose in Solar Power makes everything in her past look more like practiced nonchalance. 

In contrast, there’s a novel lightness to her and this concept. This is a newly Zen and encouraging Ella, the sunlit mood booster we all need right now. The album isn’t going to cure COVID or climate change, and Lorde doesn’t pretend to be anything but a pop star — yet being a relevant one in this hour is its own kind of salvation. “Come on and let the bliss begin,” Lorde says — and I am here for it, ready to bask in the light soon enough.

Art by Gelo Aldana