Lana Del Rey’s new album leaves little to critique

The question of her authenticity and talent is finally put to rest


"Complex - Lana Del Rey" / Joseph Gerardi / Timothy Saccenti / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Lana Del Rey poses for Complex Magazine while promoting her 2017 album "Lust for Life."

If you told me a year ago that an album called “Norman F***ing Rockwell” would be one of the best of 2019, I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet it is. 

Lana Del Rey has always been a controversial artist. Since she emerged onto the alternative pop scene in 2011 with her hit song “Video Games,” critics have questioned her authenticity. 

Her performance on SNL of her song “Blue Jeans” was blasted by critics who accused her of being an industry plant. They traced her back to singer Lizzy Grant, a “failed” aspiring artist who had her 2010 album pulled shortly after its release because her label was unable to fund it. 

Critics speculated on whether Del Rey had gotten plastic surgery, criticized her for “glamorizing” depression, and lambasted her for her vocal performance. The situation worsened after a Rolling Stone article took Del Rey’s comments on her mental health out of context, which received significant hate. 

Although the general public would warm up to her come 2017’s politically-inspired “Lust for Life,” the early years of her career were not easy. 

In fact, while I was writing this, I got to thinking. Last week, Taylor Swift released a song on her new album “Lover” called “The Man” which poses the question of what her career would have been like if she were a man. Swift, who is actually a fan of Del Rey, explored this hypothetical in detail.

I think the same can apply here. 

If Lana Del Rey were a man, would critics speculate about whether she had had plastic surgery? Would it even matter if she had? If Lana Del Rey were a man, would she be labeled as “inauthentic?” If Lana Del Rey were a man, would the primary focus in reviews of her albums be about the album itself, instead of her “persona?”

2018 Interscope Record

One male critic wrote in a review of her debut “Born To Die,” “Give Lana Del Rey credit: at least she didn’t break down and cry on Saturday Night Live.” 

At that point, many accepted the belief that she was just an industry plant whose fame was only temporary. 

Now, Born To Die is one of only three albums made by a woman to spend over 300 weeks on the Billboard charts, and one of the most successful female debut albums of all time. What is perhaps a greater achievement is the album’s influence on pop culture, allowing for the rise of other artists such as Billie Eilish. 

“I had an inner knowledge that I loved to write,” Del Rey said in an interview with ALT 98.7 FM. “If that’s the one thing you know, then [you just] keep writing. But it definitely was a challenging entryway.” 

Del Rey has always been a self-aware singer, with tongue-in-cheek lyrics and a vocal flair that differentiates her from her peers. She has always been open and honest about everything to her fans, from her emotions to her political opinions. Now, the same critics that used to hate her are singing her praises.

She has subverted expectations with each release, and her new album is no exception.

The primary producer off her new album, “Norman F***ing Rockwell” is Jack Antonoff, who has worked with the likes of Taylor Swift, Lorde, and St. Vincent in the past. Del Rey described having written the first song for the album as early as January 2018 with Bartender.” However, the process quickly sped up after she met Antonoff.

“I wasn’t writing when I met him, and he was like, ‘if you have a day off tomorrow in New York, you should come down and let’s see what we cook up.’ He was like, ‘I know I have good stuff for you,’ which no one ever says because usually, I bring my stuff to them,” she said in an interview with KROQ.

Instantly, she was impressed.

“The first thing he played for me was just five chords, and I wasn’t kidding when I said, ‘is that for me? Can I have that?’ and he said, ‘I wrote that for you.’” she said to 104.3 MYfm. “That song, which ended up being ‘Love Song’ was started by him, while I found a counter-melody. With songs like ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have, but I have it,’ I had just journaled that and I brought it to him and we did it live and acoustic.” 

2018 Interscope Records

First and foremost, the album emanates California. She has paid homage to the state in previous albums such as in “West Coast” off 2014’s “Ultraviolence” and “Freak” off 2015’s “Honeymoon,” and it is just as apparent here.

“It is definitely a California album. There’s even a song called ‘California’ on it,” she said. “Even this little song I started before the album called ‘Bartender’ is about Ladies of the Canyon.”

However, one major difference between this and the rest of her albums lies in the album cover. Whereas each of her other studio albums are of her posing in front of a car, here she holds her hand out over a boat, the sky painted blue behind her and a man at her side. 

“[Duke Nicholson, the man in the cover art] is my younger sister’s best friend. He’s someone I knew I would feel comfortable on the boat with,” she said. “Everyone was making fun of me, saying ‘you’re always in front of a car on all 7 million of your records’ and I was like ‘watch me get on a boat.’”

The album cover even references the lyrics to the second track on the album “Mariners Apartment Complex,” “You lose your way just take my hand / you’re lost at see then I’ll command your boat to me again.”

Del Rey always switches up her style, moving from alternative to rock to jazz and blues; with this most recent album, she again settles in new territory. However, it’s impossible to pinpoint this album: there are songs that channel hip-hop, others rock and jazz, and some a combination of each. 

It is nothing less than her magnum opus. Although the title, pop-art font on the album cover, or the association with her name might hold it back, I have no doubt that this album will age like fine wine.

Even though the first single released from the album “Mariners Apartment Complex” came out in September of last year, it still has the same impact on me as it did the first time I heard it. You can feel her strength as if she is speaking directly to you, guiding you away from the storm. 

“You lose your way, just take my hand / you’re lost at sea then I’ll command your boat to me again,” she sings.

There is a sense of poignancy here, and yet I would not describe this album as either happy or sad. Just like most of life, it’s in between. 

Her second song released for the record, “Venice B****,” was critically acclaimed for its genre-breaking fusion of psychedelic rock and alternative dream pop. Stripped-back vocals accompany her stellar lyricism here, and her voice stands firm in the center. 

2019 Interscope Records

The track, a sprawling 9 minutes and 36 seconds, tells an entire love story set under the California sun. It is rich in both detail and emotion.

Like other songs of hers, she references different staples of American culture, including the Norman Rockwell of which the album is named and the 1968 song “Crimson and Clover”; yet, setting itself apart from the rest of her discography, which has a more timeless appeal, “Venice B****” captures a specific point in time. The song, despite its length, is like a dream that has been made to last forever. 

After writing the song, the lyrics, “Give me Hallmark / one dream, one life, one lover / paint me happy and blue / Norman Rockwell,” stood out to her to so much so that she made the last line the title of the album. 

Her voice sounds even clearer in the final track, “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have, but I have it.” There is no beat, no choir, no orchestra nor reverberation; It sounds like she is whispering in your ear, sharing a particular vulnerability that is missing from today’s music. 

Meanwhile, her cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” brings some variety to the album, harkening back to the California trip-hop that made her popular. 

“The label I’m signed to is producing the documentary on Sublime’s life story and they asked different people to cover different songs, so I said yes and went down,” she said. “I love Sublime so much. I listen to a Sublime track probably every day driving.”

Other album highlights include “Cinnamon Girl,” “The greatest,” “Happiness is a butterfly,” “California,” and the title track.

Actually, scratch that. The whole album is a highlight. 

One of the main criticisms she got earlier in her career was that she was not a particularly strong vocalist. But what I think is so incredible about her voice, especially on this album, is how emotive it is.

One singer can drift from octave to octave, hold a note for a long time, and end with a stunning vibrato. However, they wouldn’t have half the emotion that Del Rey carries in a whisper. 

“I said ‘don’t be a jerk, don’t call me a taxi’ / sitting in your sweatshirt, crying in the backseat / oh, I just want to dance with you,” she belts in “Happiness is a butterfly.” 

Del Rey has always been a writer first and foremost, and the lyrics prove that. She plans to release a book of poetry, but there is already poetry here. She paints an image as detailed as a Rockwell, making you feel like you’re frustrated in love.

“There’s things I want to say to you, but I’ll just let you live / cause if you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first who ever did,” she sings in “Cinnamon Girl.” 

2019 Interscope Records

Each song goes above and beyond my expectations and has some of her most personal lyrics yet. Take “California,” for example. 

“I shouldn’t have done it, but I read it in your letter / you said to a friend that you wish you were doing better / I wanted to reach out, but I never said a thing,” she croons. 

You can sense in her voice that she is conflicted, desperate, as she begs her lover to return to her: “If you come back to California, just hit me up / We’ll do whatever you want, drive wherever, how far.” 

Ultimately, this is an album about coming to grips with one’s feelings, one’s fears for the future with “The greatest,” one’s regrets over the past with “California”, and one’s present with “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it.” And she handles each aspect beautifully. 

“Don’t leave, I just need a wake-up call / I’m facing the greatest / the greatest loss of them all,” she sings in “The greatest,” a track which contemplates climate change, nuclear scares, and the fall of pop culture all in its final verse. 

I urge everyone to listen to “Norman F***ing Rockwell,” not just because it is good, but because of how it breaks all the rules and still manages to be a masterpiece. 

Some may say the production on this album is inconsistent, the vocals subdued, the lyrics mellow. Yet, this album is a beautiful mess, a melodic rollercoaster ride, a lyrical journey. 

Not everyone is going to understand this album. In fact, it took me repeated listens before I was able to come to a consensus about how I feel regarding it.

Now, I see it as sheer greatness.

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