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WHERE DOES NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL RANK AMONG THE LANA DEL REY DISOGRAPHY? AND DOES IT MATTER?

LANA DEL REY

NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL!(2019)

THE PREMISE

Spend a week with any new musical release and you should have some idea of what it’s about–and what it means to you. Of its merits and failures. Of its density or weightlessness. Does it linger in your thoughts even when you are not actively listening or does it dissipate once you remove the headphones or shut down playback.

But sometimes even after a probationary period of sorts you still don’t have a clue to what it means, to its appeal or lackthereof.  This is often a problem of contemporary pop recordings–at least for those not reared on Tik Tok and Spotify. To anyone who demands music be something more than a mere playlist, or streaming data for your phone. In other words that music be more than a transitory commodity.

Despite her youthful beauty and glamor, Lana Del Rey is considerably older than say Billie Eilish; who at the moment is the apogee of pop music circa 2019: its preoccupations; demographics; its modus operandi. At 34 years of age Del Rey is unquestionably of another generation and mindset. She was even signed to another era in the music business. She may  incorporate hip hop elements, enlist the hottest rappers of the moment and pretend she’s still an agent provacteur , but those devices whether organic or a cynical attempt to stay “relevant” as a pop star are illusionary. She has far more in common with Carly Simon than Ariana Grande.

Thus she still makes “records” not collections of singles. Her “albums” cohesively adhere to concepts and conceptual thinking. She eschews the prevalent my-laptop-is-my-studio of contemporary pop. She still haunts conventional recording studios and employs musicians rather than programmers. Yes, she relies on collaborators and multiple producers, staples which she does share with artists a generation or two younger. But scrub all the bells and whistles and poses and that striptease actually reveals a thoroughly old-fashioned chanteuse.

THE CONCEPT

Since I still don’t know what I feel about her sixth solo album I’ve been thinking of her discography. How do I judge it in relation to X or Y? And since every blog loves a list…

THE RANKING(IN REVERSE ORDER):

#6

(2017)

Overrun, overstuffed, overrated. Trap meets a trap. Too much hip hop, too much Phil Spector influences, too many guest stars. Not one note from this release lingered in my mind. In fact I had forgotten she had even made Lust for Life. Your idea of heaven might be the likes of The Weeknd  and ASAP Rocky, but that is where you and I part.

#5

(2012)

This mini-EP supporting Born to Die isn’t as breathtakingly original as the full platter, yet has its own merits. Key is the cover of “Blue Velvet” which marks the set with a studied, bittersweet malaise.

#4

(2019)

She hasn’t become Phil Ochs, no matter what the critics think. NFR! is purported to have “heavy” political thoughts but that’s bullshit propaganda, regurgitated by enough silly people paid to write about music. NFR! is just a typical Lana Del Rey album. She revisits enough of her lyrical tropes(California, quotation of Classic rock titles, needless profanity) for a SNL sketch. This time her main collaborator is Jack Antonoff, or “Mr. Taylor Swift. How you feel about him, as the American Max Martin or whatever is likely to prejudge your expectations. Mercifully we are spared Lover.

It leaves me with ambivalence. The absence of guest stars is refreshing. As is the dominance of the piano. And any record which seems to eschew any rap and hip hop influences is a welcome relief to at least one pair of ears. But only a handful of songs inspire any real passionate attachment(certainly “Mariners Apartment Complex,” “Venice Bitch”, “Happiness” and “Hope”). The rest succumbs to a haziness which has me worried. Am I destined to forget NFR! the way I have Lust for Life? Only time will tell.

 

#3

(2012)

It’s very shocking how well this holds up! In fact it’s one of the more realized debut albums of the decade. Her “proper” first album laid the foundation for all to come in the Lana Del Rey story. She’s not Joan Didion from The White Album, but there is a Bret Easton Ellis quality to her best songwriting, her jaded fuck-I’ve-seen-it-all ennui which always reminds me of his first(and still best) novel, Less Than Zero. Somehow Born to Die resists sounding dated, her idea to pair hip hop with a decidely (white) retro tapestry is still intriguing. The title aside, Born to Die is often just fun. Knowing and darkly glamorous, it’s like a cruise across the more evergreen sections of LA with a beautiful young girl behind the wheel of a vintage convertible. She chain smokes, never stops talking, nor fiddling with the radio. And she honestly does seem as interested in Elvis and Dean Martin as she does in Kanye West.

#2

(2015)

I’m a sucker for musical catalogs when artist/bands suddenly swerve and release an orchestral pop record, which is why Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain and Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to Superfly are among my favorite discoveries. Honeymoon might not make the top tier of those treasures but it’s no worse than second-tier. Strings were not absent from her debut album, but not as the layered, brooding accompaniment employed throughout Honeymoon. Her singing, maybe the best on any release, is absolutely buttressed by them. Melancholy is her metier, both as a singer and lyricist. “Honeymoon,” “Terrence Loves You,” “Swan Song”  and especially “God Knows I Tried” are career highlights. “24” is great enough to grace a future James Bond movie, and even a campier number like “Salvatore” survives on its catchiness, its nod and wink. I can do without “High on the Beach” and the Manson-shimmy California obsession of “Freak,” but I love her politically incorrect sneer heard on “Art Deco.” And how her delicate invocation of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” charms you over from offering charges of pretentiousness.  It’s a splendid record only eclipsed by…

#1

(2014)

Her third album, produced mostly by Dan Auerbach from the blues-rock duo The Black Keys, is a subversive masterwork. The first half of the record, all Auerbach sessions, is all covert “classic” rock. Listen very carefully and you’ll hear echoes of early 70’s Pink Floyd. But throughout Ultraviolence the guitar is the most dominant instrument, more so than on any of her other albums. While there are some screaming solos buried in the background(particularly on the title track), guitars are used in a more painterly fashion. Tremolo’d flourishes, power chords which instead of signaling the usual masculine aggression are inverse to offer both sudden exhaustion and significant mood changes.

Honeymoon is a better collection of songs for Del Ray to sing, which reinforces the idea of her as a modern torch singer, less an heir to Nancy Sinatra, more in the lineage of Julie London. But no other of her records explicitly lays out her Machivallean world view, her largely pre-feminist stances, and has her deliver them in a more maniacal way suggestive of punk and new wave influences. Stripped of her usual penchant for hip hop-influenced productions, these Lana Del Rey tropes acquire far more menace and discomfort in the listener. The title of the album is of course a direct reference to a character’s celebration of unprovoked violence upon unsuspecting victims in A Clockwork Orange.

But the character heard throughout Ultraviolence is likely to remind you less of the demented-yet-charming psycho “Alex” and more of “Joan” from Mad Men. One of the more richly complex portrait of a woman ever depicted on television, against a nearly two decades arch from the Eisenhower Fifties to Nixonian America, Joan, as portrayed by Christina Hendricks, resisted the expected stereotypes of the “bombshell,” the “office slut,” the “mistress,” the “victim” and other pre-feminist era tropes and achieved character development usually reserved only for novels.

Del Rey does something similar on the album. She parades all the bad girls innuendo in front of our faces, both the slandering gossip and the myths she’s perpetrated. But this time the first-person salacious narratives are redeemed by a grace more common to Flannery O’Connor stories. I don’t know how she pulls it off but she does.

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