By Nick Reed
Let me start by saying I am the furthest thing from a fan of Lana Del Rey. To me, she encapsulates the worst of the wave of millennial ‘conscious’ pop and hip hop stars. Although there are obviously worse examples for this (J. Cole I’m looking at you), her approach to pop music has always rubbed me the wrong way.
Pop music is hard to make well. As far as I can tell, it’s very similar to say, horror movies in the modern age; you either indulge consciously or you subvert tropes. Think “Cabin In The Woods” vs. “Funny Games”.
While Poppy perfectly masters indulgence with mind numbing simplicity, it’s her perfect awareness of what it is she’s trying to achieve that makes her music actually quite good (and a general talent for songwriting doesn’t hurt either). On the other end of the spectrum, Lorde writes masterfully crafted songs filled with poetic stories of love and loss, and the story of a girl in her fight against the suburban blues. Yet again, Lorde’s incredible talent for songwriting and her genius song structure creates a sort of pop music more akin to the experimental work of underground electronica, yet that doesn’t stop it from dominating the airwaves.
These are examples of extremely talented pop artists in the modern age. Yet, Lana Del Rey is missing for me. For me, she is exactly what is wrong with ‘smart music’; she tries too hard.
Take for example the song “Coachella- Woodstock In My Mind”. With mind numbing hi-hats and that same layered vocal effect you’ll only hear a million times listening to the top 100s, it tells an equally mind numbing story about ‘kids not being able to enjoy their Coachella because the world is just so screwed up’, which to me at least has the same effect as 100 white girls posting the same image of the amazon burning on their Instagram stories. It is horrifyingly unaware of itself.
This is the rut I find Lana Del Rey trying to escape. She is fighting her own desire to be the next Lorde, or the next Billie Eilish, yet it seems she isn’t aware of how they caught the lightning in a bottle effect they did. They didn’t set out trying to push the envelope, to be the voice of a new lost generation, to create the next “To Pimp a Butterfly”: they only set out to make the music true to themselves.
That’s how The 1975 became the musical force they are today. After years of attempting to make the next thought provoking, genre bending masterpiece, Matty Healy looked inward, at his influences and at himself. Instead of making music that would please his fans, he created music that would please his influences, and moreover, himself.
That is how The 1975 went from a pop band to be brushed off as just another face in a sea of copycats to a standout voice. By welcoming his own true self, Healy allowed his band to transform, to become something more mature, more self aware. Doing this opened up the opportunity to not just make songs that were indulgent bore fest’s, but masterpieces taking not only the deeply personal but the politically confrontational, most notably in their epic “Love it If We Made It”.
This is a strange world we live in for sure. If you told me even 5 years ago Tyler the Creator and The 1975 would be dominating critics year-end lists I’d have laughed in your face. Now however, absolutely nothing is impossible in the world of music.
Which brings me back to Lana Del Rey, and her newest release “Norman F****** Rockwell”. Lana Del Rey has always been drowned in mediocrity, in music that’s just far enough away from mainstream to be considered alternative by her young teenage fans but light years away from anything interesting for more dedicated music fans.
Her voice, her instrumentals, her piano ballads and trap bangers have been nothing short of a massive bore, not even standing out enough on my radar for me to dislike her. Yet, with this newest album, much like the leagues of pop stars of our generation, she has carved something surprisingly incredible out of the stone of pop music.
This album stings your skin, swaddles your brain in it’s subtle synths and bass. Lana’s voice, before being indistinct and at times even grating, is now nothing short of beautiful and even haunting. Across these tracks Del Rey produces song after song that finally captures the energy she’s been trying for years to harness.
Lana Del Rey has crafted an album that bleeds with millennial doubts and fears, the sound of desperation and fear of the future, the hollowness of being a young person in the city, being lonely in a crowded room.
“Norman F****** Rockwell” oozes melancholy. Nothing about this album is really outright depressing. Yet, there’s a subtle feeling that makes you feel somewhat sad, as if a blue hazy filter has fallen across your vision.
This is the vision Lana Del Rey had in her mind when crafting “Coachella- Woodstock In My Mind”, yet here she actually executes it. Her lyrics are more accurate to her perspective and no longer laughable. She doesn’t claim any horrible ailment, any massive injustice brought against her. She’s also never blatantly political. Yet this album has ten times the political power that “Coachella” had.
It has a lot to say for the power of telling your story, the story true to yourself. Lana Del Rey is telling us that she feels lost, that she doesn’t know where life is taking her, and this is a point that she can convey to us that I actually feel like listening to. Despite wealth and status, I still feel the honesty in her words, and no semblance of an attempt to preach.
More than lyrics, Del Rey has refined her music into something a lot simpler, but because of that a lot better. Instead of the mind numbing trap pop she’s produced recently, a large chunk of these tracks, such as “Bartender” or “F*** it I love you” are much closer to straight piano ballads.
Her trip hop roots are also all over, yet more subtle, being worked into the beats of tracks like “The greatest”. The first minute of “California” consists of little more than strings and piano, yet shimmer with beauty and presents some of her most incredible vocal performances yet. Throughout this track she is pleading, she is close to tears, and in the background is even the slightest anger.
“Venice B****” is the highlight of this album however. An almost ten minute goliath, it is a truly risky expedition for a pop artist. Yet, this presents Lana at her strongest; voice, lyrics and quiet instrumentations. Although she has little to say on this song, the few lyrics we find carry more and more weight as more and more instrumentation picks up. The suburban blues seem to bleed through every inch of this song, and an almost desperate longing for escapism stings you in the bottom of your chest.
This is an album for escapism, for the melancholic. For those seeking to run away, for those unable to leave. For the heartsick, for dancing in the dark, and forgetting to think about the world crumbling around you, both the world at large and your own personal world.
Lana Del Rey is definitely the most surprising of those to join the charge of progressive pop artists. Joining their ranks is something I never saw possible, but she made the right decision. Lana Del Rey finally figured out what made her good, and dropped what didn’t.
This album is a perfect example of what it means to realize your full potential. To drop the excess. To not try too hard. This album is by far Del Rey’s most simplistic effort, yet it is by far her best crafted, and deserves to sit on the shelf with our generations best pop efforts, somewhere between “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships” and “Melodrama”.
Too anyone with reserved doubts about this album; forget them. Give “Norman F****** Rockwell” a chance. Open yourself up to be pleasantly surprised.
Photo above: Del Rey performing at Irving Plaza in June 2012