Lana Del Rey ‘Born to Die’ – Review

22 Feb

David Sneddon won a reality Tv competition called Fame Academy back in 2002. It was a decent show, as these things go, like the Beeb’s answer to X-factor, but with the idea being to nurture the singers rather than humiliate them. It produced Lemar, the only contestant to have any sustained success off the back of it, but the winner was this guy Sneddon. At 22, the scot had a number one single with ‘Stop Living the Lie’. It wasn’t bad – a bit corny and cliched (as these things have to be), but he wrote it, which (according to wiki) is still unique amongst winners of this type of show.

Why am I spending the opening paragraph of a review, of this year’s most hyped debut album, talking about some long forgotten winner of a long forgotten BBC reality show? Because surprisingly (and I can’t emphasise that word enough) one of the songs on this incredibly anticipated album was written by Sneddon. It’s track five, ‘National anthem’, a glitzy, maximalist ode to all things Hollywood. How strange this couple are, Del Rey and Sneddon, seemingly opposed on so many levels – and the partnership has produced a song as awkward and unexpected as you would imagine. But tis sums up the peculiarity of Lan Del Rey.

This is one of many things that are awkward and unexpected about her; a Southern Beauty raised in a trailer park, rumoured to have a small obsession with plastic surgery (a fact that has distracted many short-sighted critics), she made a shelved album with industry heavyweight David Kahne, and had the biggest blog hit of 2011 with an ode to being young, lazy and helplessly in love. She has also been the subject of some pretty hateful, some have said sexist, abuse from all kinds of outlets (most of the criticism has focused on the aesthetics rather than her music). Lana Del Rey is anything but obvious, anything but normal, and so, ‘Born to Die’ isn’t the classic debut album it was obviously going to be, nor is it the complete failure it was obviously going to be (depending which side of the fence you’re sitting on). And yet, she has had more commercial success than anyone could have predicted for such an unusual singer – this is a number one album featuring two top ten singles. All bets are off, nothing is predictable anymore.

At the start there are the established successes; ‘Video Games’ arrives early and knocks the next two tracks out of the ring (the forgettable ‘Diet Mountain Dew’ and ‘National Anthem’), such is its overpowering brilliance. ‘Blue Jeans’ and ‘Born to Die’, the other known songs, are also placed at the front of the pack, which, as you can imagine, makes this a top heavy album. That’s not to say that the second half doesn’t have its delights. ‘Dark Paradise’ is brilliant, as are ‘Summertime Sadness’ and ‘Without You’. Then there’s the sultry ballad ‘Radio’ which would, un-coincidently, sound great on a radio.

If you’ve heard lead single ‘Born to Die’ then you’ll be familiar with the production style of the album. Del Rey combines hip hop (verging on trip hop) beats with majestic string arrangements and then proceeds to belt out over the top. It’s certainly an individual style, and over the course of the record it becomes her trademark. That said, it’s a slightly overwhelming, claustrophobic sound and it definitely becomes too overpowering after twelve songs that, truth be told, sound fairly similar. The only real difference between, say, the title track and ‘What Makes Us Girls’ is the quality of the songwriting, otherwise they are much the same.

Lyrically, Del Rey’s main preoccupation seems to be with the Male equivalent of a Femme fatale (whatever that’s called!). Last year there was some discussion as to whether the lyrics to ‘Video Games’ were being sung ironically or straight faced, but in the context of the album it’s now evident that Del Rey is far from being ironic. She is a woman in rapture, a woman addicted to a man and literally willing to do anything for him. Other women become ‘bitches’ who try to steal him, and time spent not in his company is time wasted, even if that means just lazing about doing jack all. The man in question is consistently refered to as a ‘bad man’ who is up to no good. There are numerous references to drugs, alcohol, money, gambling and all sorts of other vices. Del Rey goes back to him because, apparently, she can’t ‘deny the way he holds my hand’. The devotion unfolds and breaks down in several despairing moments, and unravels into pure heartbreak on songs like ‘Without You’. In her bleakest moment she moans ‘I wish I was dead’.

From the bliss of ‘Video Games’ to the sadness of ‘Dark Paridise’, Del Rey is at her best when she is confronting her inner demons. She is less effective when she steps into the third person as on ‘Carmen’ and ‘National Anthemn’, where she takes on the role of a storyteller. That said, she’s accomplished at crafting emotive lyrics that feel heart wrenchingly honest and completely fictional at the same time. She twists old Hollywood cliches, and describes everything in vivid shades of detail. On one song she describes the ‘Swimming pool glimmering, darling/ White bikini off with my red nail polish/ Watch me in the swimming pool bright blue ripples/ you sitting sipping, on your black Cristal, yeah.’ This displays the knack she has for creating beautiful images, using adjectives and sibilance to great effect. Her voice is able to bend to suit the needs of the song, whether that means crooning in falsetto or stabbing syllables in a rhythmic fashion. She is versatile and she knows it.

Del Rey refers to herself as a ‘starlet’ on the album, and ‘Born to Die’ confirms this to be the case. She has the glamour, the voice, the personality, and most importantly she has the songs. On ‘Diet Mountain Dew’ she rhymes the word ‘Starlet’ with ‘Harlet’ displaying the uncertainty that lurks beneath her confidence, the self-loathing lyrics that lurk alongside the ambition. It’s this tension, the combination of old school 1950’s glamour, heartbreak, melting string arrangements, that velvet voice, and 21st century hip hop production, that really captivates here. It may not be perfect, but ‘Born to Die’ certainly grabs your attention for a number of reasons.

So Independent on Sunday, with your score of ten, and Tiny Mix Tapes, with your score of zero, you’re both wrong. There are some classic knock out songs on here, and there are some duds, but overall this is a far better than average debut that bypasses the hype and the controversy – and is undoubtedly, a hit.

7.5/10

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