Channeling the sublime, revering the sun: The evolution of natural beauty behind Lorde’s ‘Melodrama,’ ‘Solar Power’

screenshot from Lorde's Solar Power
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It might come as a surprise that an expedition to Antarctica inspired an album titled Solar Power, but Lorde’s captivation with the southernmost continent has been brewing ever since her childhood. On a class field trip to an aquarium, she learned about an early 20th-century race to the South Pole.

“I found myself fascinated by the slow deterioration of his party,” she wrote of explorer Robert Scott in an essay she penned for Metro. “The story is grimly illuminated in several diaries — the frostbite, the deaths of his men, and then, upon arrival at the pole, the discovery of his rival’s flag, planted 34 days before. The high drama of Antarctica compelled me.”

In February 2019 while developing ideas for her third album, Lorde finally immersed herself in Antarctica’s magnetic spectacle, swept away by its overwhelming resplendence. Brittle ice melted to leave a pure, clean slate, washing away the velvety violets and indigos of her sophomore record Melodrama.

Many consider Lorde’s latest balmy record Solar Power to be the antithesis of austere Melodrama, but the albums have more in common than meets the eye: Enter the sublime.

With focuses in the natural and artistic realms, philosopher Edmund Burke discussed the convergence of terror and beauty in his 1757 treatise “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” He argued that anything “operat(ing) in a manner analogous to terror” generates the sublime — a feeling akin to utmost, overwhelming wonder which Burke considered the most potent emotion known to humankind.

In a June interview with the Guardian, Lorde reflected on her Antarctic expedition and experience with the sublime. “The only thing to contemplate there is this raw force,” she shared. “It’s as much terror as beauty. You don’t feel welcomed by the natural world — I completely felt like an interloper.”

It’s hard to picture Lorde as a trespasser after listening to her folksy third record, Solar Power. She drifts like a cloud on the hazy horizon, her radiance saturating reality. While Lorde experienced nature in its truest, purest form on her Antarctic voyage, she still felt like an interloper.

Although Solar Power respectfully conveys the brutal intensity of the foreboding landscape, no one bends nature to their will, and the ills of such impiety for nature have been long explored in art. In Saki’s 1919 short story “The Interlopers,” a frightful storm strikes down two quarreling enemies with a falling beech tree, pinning them to the forest’s undergrowth and leaving them to wolves. Like all life on earth, the men are at the mercy of nature. Mother Nature may be terrifying, but she is not needlessly cruel: Saki makes it clear that the men brought this fate upon themselves.

There’s a grim, steely allure to this tempest. The storm leaves the duo helpless “in a tight tangle of forked branches” amid “thick-strewn wreckage of splintered branches and broken twigs.” Here, the sublime makes itself known as violence and beauty intertwine.

Lorde similarly elevates this disturbing alloy on Melodrama; “Can you hear the violence?” she sings on “The Louvre” to the beat of her heart. Amid red cups, broken glass and clandestine kisses, her record amplifies the brutality of heartbreak and adolescence into a grotesque aesthetic. Her lover in “Liability” makes “the big mistake of dancing in (her) storm,” in her wild “forest fire.” Calling upon the sublime, Lorde utilizes the pure force of nature to relay the unsettling beauty of pain.

On Solar Power, however, Lorde searches the natural world for peace. The singer-songwriter describes her album as “a celebration of the natural world, an attempt at immortalising the deep, transcendent feelings I have when I’m outdoors.” In her sincere embrace of nature, Lorde begins to live her true life rather than the immaterial one she’s been plugged into. (“Can you reach me? No, you can’t!” she cheers on the record’s title track, her feet deep in sand).

With the exception of an occasional onion ring Instagram post, the artist purposefully neglected social media during her Solar Power release. Instead, she wrote casual, personal newsletters to fans that shared reading lists, garden photos or behind-the-scenes studio footage. Some shared analytical essays, and one newsletter in particular offered a piece about the tragic trickery of self-optimization.

“It’s very easy,” explained essayist Jia Tolentino, “under conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organizing your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible.” Tolentino also took a page from Donna Haraway’s 1985 “A Cyborg Manifesto” — “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert,” Haraway wrote, hauntingly, discussing technology’s pollution of our authentic identities.

Lorde’s Solar Power seeks escape from this adulteration, offering a true, divine representation of what life could be once it’s free from societal constraints, technology or judgment. She steps into a circle of light on a soft forest floor, blinking three times before adjusting to the newfound warmth, to the earth beneath her feet. This is the beauty of Solar Power: It ebbs and flows as a backdrop for the natural world’s serenity and violence.

The Guardian’s Laura Snapes wrote that Solar Power glorifies “life’s natural rhythms: tides, seasons, the evolution of a feeling, or indeed, canine cogitation.” Yet the record is more than that — it is nature itself, life itself.

Lorde doesn’t say farewell to life’s terror and beauty; instead, she embraces them, welcoming them like old friends. She understands grief as necessary to know true joy, and as the humming cicadas of New Zealand summer fill the air, nature rejoices, too.

Taila Lee is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].