Lana Del Rey ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ – Review

21 Sep

Last July as England were throwing away a World Cup semi-final against Croatia, Lana Del Rey quietly released the eight minute ‘Venice bitch’, a woozy meditation on fading summer, fading love, fading youth. It was her finest single in half a decade. She’s been gradually putting out songs ever since; the more accessible ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’, the tragic ‘Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman to Have’ and a throwaway cover of Sublime’s ‘Doin Time’. Somewhere in between she told us that the album would be called ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’, which is perhaps the most perfect Lana Del Rey album title you could imagine.

On the front cover, Del Rey is sailing off in to the sunset wearing a bright green windbreaker. An American flag is draped over the yacht, while California literally burns in the background. Lana’s arm is outstretched, inviting the listener towards her and her handsome accomplice (Jack Nicholson’s grandson no less). It’s an evocative, dreamlike imagine, rendered in a painterly hue, complimented by pop-art font. Classic Americana with a twist. It’s also a diversion from her usual imagery; the first cover where the singer isn’t dressed in white, or standing in front of a car. It’s brighter and more adventurous than that. Both literally and metaphorically it depicts a departure, which the music follows through on.

On ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ there is a careful turn towards balanced perspective, one that dials down the myth making just enough to let the light in. The result is no less grandiose or indulgent – in fact quite the opposite – but it does feel like a more sophisticated evocation of her ambitions. Del Rey is one of the the most written about, discussed and dissected pop star of all time. Here she turns the focus away from herself, using her talents to unknot the mythologies of American pop culture, even as she continues to swoon over its perversions. This love affair has clearly become more complicated over the past couple of years, and her writing has kept pace.

Del Rey has been capable of clever statements from the very beginning of course – ‘Video Games’ is one of the most distinctive debut singles in pop history – but her writing has sometimes lacked nuance. By the time of third album ‘Honeymoon’, the constant dirge of metaphors and similes, mostly used to describe the cloying, destructive aspects of dependent love, became tiresome. On ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ everything comes in to focus. Her observations are sharper, funnier, the scope is wider and more knowing, the characters are more developed. While she retains a tendency to draw from archetypes, her characters feel less like cliched sketches and more like constructive critiques. Her depiction of a complicated ‘man child’ on the opening track sets the tone and song after song finds her wrestling with notions of conflict and complicity in a thoughtful way. Her descriptions are complicated and three dimensional while her conclusions are ambiguous. This is a songwriter who will not be boxed in.

’Norman F****** Rockwell’s songs catch Del Rey in the act of escaping herself and her complacency. She has always been a slippery persona, inhabiting a character but bristling at the idea of being deconstructed or analysed. Where exactly Lizzy Grant ends and Lana Del Rey begins has been a central question of the criticism surrounding her though it’s never been something she has been interested in untangling. For now at least, she’s restless, hunting down a feeling that is always just beyond arm’s reach. On ‘Bartender’ she flees from the housewives of Laurel Canyon to hook up with a bartender 60 miles away. ‘I bought me a truck in the middle of the night, it will last me a year if I play my cards right.’ On ‘The Next Best American Record’ she’s shooting down the 405 to attend a happening party. A couple of other songs find her making similar moves down long, dusty roads. It’s as if she is in a permanent state of fluctuation, which in turn lends the album a long, unrolling vibrancy.

If the title and cover wasn’t clue enough, ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ rests comfortably in the lineage of classic American art. There are striking echoes of mid 70’s Elvis on the bombastic centrepiece ‘The Greatest’, which also references The Beach Boys, Kanye West and the end of the world. Elsewhere she recalls Marilyn Monroe in her mannerisms and Springsteen in her fascination with outcasts. But she never totally sounds like anyone other than Lana Del Rey. She has perhaps the most unique sound of any contemporary pop star, and her vision has never been so fully realised before. The simplicity of the arrangements and the space given over to allow instruments to breathe, suggests an assured ease with her own style. Notes stretch and linger, strings move so slowly in the background they almost seem to be melting. Everything wanders. The production is of a certain classic vintage; only the strangely placed cover of ‘Doin Time’, and the odd ripple of programmed beats, concede anything to contemporary pop production. And vocally of course it’s a tour de-force. The audacity of her style underlines the links to mid 20th century balladeers like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. Her sometimes stormy, sometimes breathy versatility puts her above and beyond more technically gifted but conservatively minded singers like recent collaborators Ariana Grande and Miles Cyrus.

‘Norman F****** is a lot, and the meandering pace makes the album feel even longer than its 80 min run time. It would have benefited from being a couple of tracks shorter and a little snappier in the middle. But by this point you should know what to expect from a Lana Del Rey album and indulgence is sort of the point. Ultimately this is a cohesive, classy pop album that flirts with American nostalgia but is at its best when it explores very contemporary questions. Del Rey has compressed great complexity in to her most stripped back and spacious album to date; an album full of darkness and light, sadness and tentative hope.

8/10

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