On Iterative Artists: Lana Del Rey and Yasujirō Ozu

Album Review: Lust For Life

There are certain artists who prefer to work iteratively. The revered Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu (1903–1963) comes to mind. Lana Del Rey’s new album falls squarely into this iterative category, and it is essentially indistinguishable from her previous releases in its aesthetics and general construction. From a critical perspective, this is by no means a slight: in Ozu’s oeuvre, the narrowing to a limited palette of filmmaking techniques and the constant revisiting of similar plots led to a body of films unparalleled in their focus, idiosyncratic consistency, and communicative acuity.

One of the things I appreciate about Lana Del Rey taking this approach is that it forces the listener to engage with the subtler fluctuations in the non-aesthetic and non-production elements of a pop album, which in the late 2010s occasionally (and intentionally) find themselves subservient. In this regard, the most noticeable feature of Lust For Life is that it continues Honeymoon’s tonal shift away from the nihilism of Born To Die… into what I will hesitatingly describe as a flirtation with hope.

Born to Die was Tokyo Twilight, Lust for Life is Late Autumn.

Tokyo Twilight, 1957 and Late Autumn, 1960. ©Criterion Collection

Lana achieves this divergence primarily with affect rather than diction. Like Ozu returning time and again to a family in transition, Lana once again finds herself on the beach; in the summer; in a haze; in a catalog of filmic terminology: soft filters, celluloid, Topanga Canyon, and of course the Hollywood sign.

And once again, Lana grounds her lyrics in the work of postwar bubblegum groups like The Angels and The Crystals. Often, Lana’s spot-on, deadpan quasi-camp delivery obscures just how boldly, daringly vapid some of these lines are — a testament to the amount of thought and control exhibited in the excellent quality of her vocal work. It’s difficult to imagine any other chart-topping pop vocalist pulling off lines like:

Hip hop in the summer
Don’t be a bummer, babe
Be my undercover lover, babe

…without their utter inanity breaking the listener’s suspension of disbelief.

Lana Del Rey can stretch the audience’s window of acceptance for material like this because she has so fully and successfully subsumed discussion of the performative aspect required of entertainment industry figures into her intratextual material. As a narrator, she is constantly reminding us that she is cognizant of being observed, and conscious of how she comes across; she is “camera-ready almost all the time.”

This fascination with the gaze extends from herself as well: She watches in awe as her famous paramour performs at the club; the impact of seeing a bad boy’s powerful white Mustang forms the central metaphor for their relationship; she watches a friend’s husband “swing and shine” at Coachella; the album opens with the line “Look at you kids…”

Which leads us back to Lust For Life’s unexpected turn towards the positive, and what I see as the album’s main issue: tonal inconsistency. This statement sounds absurd, given the explicitly defined and self-contained qualities of Lana Del Rey’s work — but Lust for Life is unusual in that it draws from a broader range of elements within her particular spectrum.

The exploratory Ultraviolence and fuller, focused Honeymoon downplayed the trap elements and instead leaned into the writing and aesthetic features of film noir soundtracks and pulsating, stripped-down ‘60s and ‘70s drug pop. In returning trap, cloud rap, and modern pop influences to an equal footing with the vintage material, Lust For Life bounces around somewhat from track to track in way that I found detracting. The album’s sequencing smooths this out a little by front-loading the peppier, hedonistic material and finishing with songs that emphasize the idea of hope and change — life — as a distinct possibility.

This combination of musical styles and philosophical ideas also comes with a reigning in of some her more extreme songwriting impulses. Here, she never quite reaches the stratospheric ridiculousness of songs like Honeymoon’s “Salvatore” or Ultraviolence’s “F****d My Way Up To The Top.” The closest she gets on Lust For Life is “Heroin,” which includes the outlandish couplet “Life rocked me / just like Mötley” sung in a heatwave-inflected ennui, and replaces the word “Heroin” with “Marzipan” in the third chorus. Extreme narrative situations like the suicide-leaning escape fetishism of Honeymoon’s “Swan Song” are replaced by a lengthy search for some alone time in “13 Beaches”… and honestly, this linguistic and narrative mellowing takes some of the fun out of the listening experience.

For me, the lingering unbalance in Lust for Life relates to the question of how far the sociopolitical realities of enduring the post-Trump age will be allowed to encroach into (as author Abé Mark Nornes describes Ozu’s work) the “hermetic cohesiveness” of Lana Del Rey’s output. Pop music is and always has been distinctively of the now — even when (like with Lana or The Strokes) this nowness is best communicated using the stylistic lexicon of bygone eras. To release a pop album without an empowerment anthem like “God Bless America — And All The beautiful Women In It,” or statement songs like “Change” and “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing” would be very much against the grain of our current moment. But, in having honed such a specific style and presentation, these types of songs also kinda go against the grain of Lana Del Rey.

My favorite work Lana has produced is the 10 minute long “Ride” video. Headdress appropriation aside… watching her fully enfolded into the postmodern embrace of actualizing the intratextual environment of her music by enacting a film star’s transition from glamorous ‘50s studio formality to gritty ’70s outlaw cinema was an amazing left-turn — but one that still managed to land the material squarely inside of the core topics of transactional relationships and emotional drift which are hallmarks of Lana Del Rey’s narrative universe. This was a perfect moment for a songwriter so obsessed with perception, with presentation, with how filmic vocabularies influence the way we digest the world; and it effectively extended the audience’s understanding of the sorts of narratives and presentations Lana could take on while still retaining a focused core identity.

Lana Del Rey’s current incarnation, with daisy-woven locks falling above a beaming smile, fuzzy in the cold white balance of a Polaroid exposure, presents an interesting take on the formula. Transactional relationships now surface in the flavor of “groupie love.” Emotional drift now takes the character of ambiguity: a boy’s phone number not taken, even though she “liked him a lot.” But where do we file all these completely new and uncharacteristic ideas about social progress, and a belief in the future?

Ozu, without the need to present himself as anything other than a filmmaker, had the freedom to move from the heavy black of Tokyo Twilight to the heartfelt technicolor goofiness of Good Morning; using his idiosyncratic filmmaking style to support each particular story’s details. Elizabeth Grant, by virtue of having written herself as performative narrator into her texts, may now face a situation where her authorial impulses might run counter to the established character of Lana Del Rey.

A truly postmodern problem for a truly postmodern artist.