The mood on the New Zealand pop singer's subdued third album sounds a lot like caution, or just self-protection.

The line on Lorde has always been that she came into the world an old soul, fully formed — some precocious pop-star Buddha poured into the mortal coil of a girl from suburban New Zealand named Ella Yelich-O'Connor. At 16, she self-released "Royals," a sweet, stinging X-ray of modern fame; it went on to top the charts from Ireland to Italy and win two Grammys, including Song of the Year. The commercial and critical success of her first two studio albums, 2013's Pure Heroine and 2017's Melodrama, seemed to signal an artist only more sure of herself at every turn: Gen Z's Kiwi poet-queen stepping serenely into her crown.

And then several years of touring and living and pandemic-induced intermissions passed; the singer cited the death of her beloved dog, Pearl, for the initial delays in completing Solar Power (out Aug. 20). But the couplet that launches its folky falsettoed opener, "The Path," lands with switchblade precision, a tiny autobiography contained in two lines: "Born in the year of OxyContin, raised in the tall grass/Teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash." It's the kind of shrewd songcraft she's rightfully become famous for, dense with left-field references and filigreed detail.

The delicate, melancholy "California" finds her floating like a lady of the canyon over pretty Golden State reveries of desert flowers and "kids in line for the new Supreme"; there's a different kind of botany at work in "Stoned in the Nail Salon," whose sparse guitar hum backlights wistful lyrics about wishbones on windowsills and learning to slow down. If the album has a muse, it's the elusive silver-haired lover she seems to address on several tracks. (Yelich-O'Connor has never publicly acknowledged a partner, though Google sleuths are happy to draw their own conclusions.) "I should have known when your favorite record was the same as my father's, you'd take me down," she coos ruefully on "The Man With an Axe," a loping, willowy ballad on which she also admits, "I've got hundreds of gowns/I've got paintings in frames/And a throat that fills with panic every festival day."

Evidence of a less anxious Ella emerges on the lead-single title track, whose beatific music video showcases her frolicking on white sands in a silky two-piece the color of liquid sunshine, taking hits from a celery bong and exhorting her listeners to "Come on and let the bliss begin." Reception to the clip was mixed: Some said it looked like an ad for antidepressants or Old Navy; others embraced the benevolent-cult-leader vibe of it all. (Unsurprisingly, the internet also has no shortage of opinions about the album's cover shot, with its cheekily exposed undercarriage.)

The blithe gospel-chorused "Solar" stands out as one of the few pure-uplift moments on the record — which, like Melodrama, was mostly co-produced with Lorde's longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff. But Solar Power ultimately swerves away from that sort of rich sonic world-building — the galloping dance-floor synths, thunderous drums, and tricky time signatures — in favor of a feathery midtempo minimalism, delicate watercolor washes of sound wafting past her honeybee rasp.

At 24, Lorde is already a de facto elder stateswoman of the female-centered sound she helped pioneer: a nameless genre somewhere between high-gloss pop and indie rock, untroubled by the stringent rules of Hot 100 radio. So when rising acolytes Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo turn up on background vocals or Swedish deity Robyn drops a self-help spoken-word interlude into the battle-scarred musings of "Secrets From a Girl (Who's Seen It All)," it feels almost like a contact tracing of that loose but crucial sisterhood.

Maybe the singer, whipsawed by nearly a decade in the public eye and never quite convinced that the trade-offs justify the losses, is ready to cede some of her spotlight to the next wave. There's a subdued quality to Solar Power that feels a lot like caution, or just self-protection — a deliberate retreat from the raw, unfiltered verve of her earlier output into the safer remove of a wry bystander more at ease with cool observation than confessional bloodletting. "Now that cherry-black lipstick's gathering dust in a drawer, I don't need her anymore/Cuz I got this power," she intones airily on the gauzy closer "Oceanic Feeling"; no longer really a girl at all, and keeping certain secrets to herself. B

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