REVIEW: Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell

I remember hearing ‘Video Games’, Lana Del Rey’s breakout single, for the first time. I was a third-year university student, and it woke me up through my alarm clock radio (remember them?) one morning. Drenched in melancholy and longing, the rising and falling piano combined with Del Rey’s wistful delivery had me in shivers. Though it was only audible through analogue fuzz, it was one of those moments where I knew I’d heard a song that I love. I only learned about the ‘controversy’ surrounding her as an artist when I went online. People were calling Del Rey melodramatic, sentimental and inauthentic for her major label attachment, sad-1950s-LA-girl aesthetic, and even the way she looked. It made ‘Video Games’ feel like a guilty pleasure, because even if this music was a calculated attempt by the industry to make money, the song just sounded like magic to me.

Of course, 2011 was very different to 2019. Some, if not all, of that criticism now seems invalid and, especially in regard to Lana Del Rey’s appearance, downright sexist. Del Rey’s gigantic fanbase shows that I wasn’t alone in being drawn in by her songs which work like old films – sweeping you up in the way they romanticise dreams of love and life. Her new record, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, is her fifth as Del Rey (she’d previously released music under her birth name, Lizzy Grant). The title alone hints that she’s finally lost patience with the exasperating male sources of her affection that have permeated her other albums. This was promising for me. I’ve found that her songs to date could have the same bewitching effect on me as ‘Video Games’ did in isolation (‘Blue Jeans’, ‘Brooklyn Baby’, ‘Love’), but over the course of long records, the music tended to sound a little one-paced. But there’s always the hope with a new Lana Del Rey album that she’ll deliver an LP that sustains the magic.

From the opening chords of NFR, we know that we’re in different territory here. Delicate strings give way to bare piano chords and the already-iconic, eviscerating first lines: “Goddamn man-child, you fucked me so good I almost said ”I love you””. The production and lyricism stand out immediately; this is no longer an overblown affair, this is stripped back, considered songcraft, and Del Rey’s decision to collaborate with superproducer Jack Antonoff already seems perfect. The following four tracks were each released in advance of the record. ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ was the one that made me the most excited ahead of NFR’s release and it remains a highlight, because like the opener, it’s an exquisitely made song. Casting aside the doe-eyed laments of some of her earlier songs, it’s replaced with a steely glare and lyrics of strength, not weakness (the chorus’ “you’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again” brings back those ‘Video Games’ shivers).

‘Venice Bitch’ extends to nine-and-a-half minutes with a lengthy instrumental passage in its middle section. Pre-album, I wasn’t sold on this, but placed in the record it adds to the atmosphere of a cohesive whole – much like her tasteful cover of Sublime’s ‘Doin’ Time’. The summery, nostalgic LA vibe is still there, but it no longer feels melodramatic. My favourite passage in the album follows: the triplet of ‘Love Song’, ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and ‘How to Disappear’. Thematically, the songs are similar to Del Rey’s previous material, but each have gorgeous production flourishes that elevate them. In particular, the way Del Rey’s beautiful vocals on ‘Love Song’ are supported by nothing but a simple piano and gentle strings just bowled me over.

This is not to say that Del Rey’s tendency to meander is completely absent on NFR. Both ‘California’ and ‘The Next Best American Record’ – two of the lengthier songs – drag a little. They form part of a triplet of successive songs about the USA (another constant theme in her discography) but they don’t say anything that following song ‘The Greatest’ doesn’t. I’d hesitate to say this lives up to its title as the best thing here – some of the lyrics are a little unsubtle in their desire to be politically relevant – but it’s a strong torch song that admirably touches on the current troubles in the nation. The album closes with three highlights that seem more personal. ‘Bartender’ and ‘Happiness is a Butterfly’ are fantastically crafted, but ‘Hope is a Dangerous Thing…’ seems to be the most clearly personal thing Del Rey has written, addressing her past (particularly that perception of her at the start of her career) and her hope for the future. With nothing but stark piano, it’s the perfect closer.

I’d have previously said, despite my hopes, that it was ultimately impossible for Lana Del Rey to make a great album – she wears her musical and aesthetic influences and too readily on her sleeve for her work to be singular enough to be respected in its own right. But NFR changes that. Her songwriting craft, in tandem with Antonoff’s production, has created one of the year’s best albums that actually lives up to much of the breathless praise it has gained from many. You can’t call it melodramatic, sentimental, or inauthentic anymore: Norman Fucking Rockwell! is simply a great record.

Words by Tom Burrows

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