Lana del Rey-NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL (Interscope)
Lana del Rey might not appreciate this review. Take two: Lizzy Grant might not appreciate this review. When del Rey went after Ann Powers’ review of her album on Twitter for claiming that she’s working behind a persona, which one was speaking? She recorded three self-released albums under as many names and styles before finding success as Lana del Rey signing to Interscope. Powers’ extensive review of NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL is positive, but it’s not the “ALBUM OF THE YEAR!” gushing which has been par for the course. For many critics, del Rey’s appeal has long been the way she treats old-fashioned notions of authenticity like yesterday’s newspaper and recycles them into cosplay material.
NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL departs from previous del Rey albums in several ways. While her duet partners on LUST FOR LIFE included the Weeknd and Stevie Nicks, there are no guests here. Producer Jack Antonoff provided most of the spare instrumentation himself. Even the string arrangements are hushed. She’s abandoned her hip-hop and dance music influences, but not her tendency to fill her lyrics with Easter eggs. Most songs throw out references left and right. “The Next Best American Record” mentions the Eagles and Led Zeppelin’s HOUSES OF THE HOLY. “The Greatest” summons up an apocalyptic mood by turning the Beach Boys’ vapid “Kokomo” into a premonition of their drummer Dennis Wilson’s death, then dismissing Kanye West and opining “ ‘Life on Mars’ isn’t just a song.” On “Fuck it I love you,” she quotes “California Dreamin’ “ and Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” in the same line. Other songs shout out John Lennon and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Like LUST FOR LIFE’s “Heroin” (and that album’s title track itself), “Cinnamon Girl” is not a cover.
You might notice the direction in which almost all of these are pointing. The 9-minute “Venice Bitch,” which ends with her voice giving way to swirling synthesizers and a lengthy guitar solo, ventures into psychedelic rock. Indeed, NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL has made her attractive to boomers for the first time in her career. Yet her lyrics also capture the way we internalize our favorite music and incorporate it into our lives. They pull earworms out of the air and use them to speak about her experiences. “ ‘Life On Mars’ isn’t just a song” has a genuine conversational ring.
“The Greatest” has one of the album’s best quotables: “The culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball.” She uses a variation on that line several times, but only once with the pessimistic “if this it” included. That song captures a very 2019 mix of hedonism and nihilism — if climate change is gonna render the planet unlivable within our lifetimes, we might as well race into the future, livestreaming our despair. Her recent music expands on the melancholy feel that’s usually underpinned it. “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me, but I have it” and the non-album single “Looking For America” aren’t pleasantly downbeat Spotify-core a la Khalid and the female pop singers she’s inspired. They sound intensely anguished.
Del Rey defined her image succinctly on her second album with “Sad Girl,” following up her one major pop hit “Summertime Sadness.” When her first major label album, BORN TO DIE, was released, it received a lot of condescending reviews that took its submissive posturing and sugar daddy fetish at face value. The best writing about del Rey has come from women. In an essay called “Lana del Rey Makes Me Wish I Were Straight,” the trans lesbian writer Samantha Allen suggested that del Rey’s vision of femininity showed the artificiality of conventional visions of heterosexual womanhood: “She’s aggressively straight, tragically straight, sometimes even comically so… She makes heterosexuality as hypervisible as my own sexuality and, in so doing, opens up the possibility of mutual understanding between us. No one tries as hard as she does to convince me that men are handsome, that sex is delicious, and that fast cars are the best place to experience both of them.”
To me, del Rey’s early music has dated better than the 2010s’ many “girl power” anthems, which now sound like painfully tame marketing exercises in the wake of the past few years’ revelations about the extent of sexual harassment and assault and the intractability of powerful, violent men. She stepped into questionable territory on songs like “Ultraviolence” (which lifts another Easter egg from the Crystals’ “He Hit Me And It Felt Like a Kiss”) and “Lolita.” But female singers’ politics are hyper-policed, even if domestic violence and pedophilia don’t make the best ironic reference points; no woman could get away with Morrissey or Kanye West’s no-filter attitude for long. The one radio hit from NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL, her cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” initially seemed out of place, but her decision to sing Bradley Nowell’s lyrics with no changes alters their meaning. The original song was a sexist dig that imagines drowning a woman, but when del Rey sings “we’ve come to tell you that she’s evil, most definitely,” it becomes a boast.
The title track is an eloquent dis of its subject. She steps on his ego, although she doesn’t want to get away from him as much as she devotes the song to making fun of him. But as a whole, the album fleshes out her sadgirl attitude more than departing from it (although when she sings about dating a man who might be a serial killer, she probably doesn’t mean it literally.) However, she leaves the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” image behind (except for “Doin’ Time,” which leaves intact Nowell’s white boy rapping and Rasta references and includes turntable scratches.) She positions herself as the inheritor of Laurel Canyon singer/songwriters instead. Lately, this has become a crowded space: Jenny Lewis, Father John Misty, Weyes Blood and Kacey Musgraces are making music inspired by ’70s soft rock.
NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL returns to the nostalgic references to California and America, which have long filled her music. Take a shot every time she mentions the state here, and you’ll get pretty wasted. But that’s nothing new — she celebrated the “West Coast” on ULTRAVIOLENCE. Even covering “Doin’ Time,” which celebrates Long Beach, makes sense in her aesthetic. If there was a gentle irony to the materialism of “National Anthem,” “The Greatest” makes an Instagram page full of photos of California sunshine and applies an unflattering filter to them. “Looking For America,” written and recorded quickly after the weekend of massacres in El Paso and Dayton, acknowledges that a country free from violence is aspirational.
“Looking For America” speaks directly and very powerfully from the heart. But in her response to Powers, del Rey insists that she “never had a persona. Never needed one” behind her music. “Fucked My Way To The Top” and “Money Power Glory” have something to say about the limits of women’s options in late capitalism, reading as far more sarcastic than “Material Girl” without crossing the line into overt politics. Del Rey seems to take inspiration from cinema as much as music, inhabiting characters. “Lust For Life” is a superficially upbeat song whose lyrics and video refer to an actress’ suicidal jump off the Hollywood sign; if one knows that, it’s a complex mix of emotions rather than an embrace of sex and joy. But her choice of NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL as a title says something about whose voices Americans embrace for our national anthem. The song itself describes someone else, but del Rey has become our Norman fucking Rockwell.