Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell! review – an artist you can depend on

Del Rey goes back to her well of swooning melodies, twanging guitars, Twin Peaks-ish Americana and cinematic ballads about women in love with ne’er-do-wells

We live in a world of terrifying flux and instability, where any consideration of what might happen next comes with a side order of blind terror. If you were looking to understand the appeal of Lana Del Rey, eight years and five albums since her commercial breakthrough, you might alight on the fact that she offers a certain respite from uncertainty. You put her albums on and know more or less exactly what will happen next. There will be ballads decorated with cinematic orchestration. Guitars will twang and electronics will waft and surge in a manner that evokes Angelo Badalementi’s soundtrack to Twin Peaks, and her voice will be swathed in reverb in a manner that evokes Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star. The vocals will have a dead-eyed quality at odds with the yearning ache of the lyrics, in which girls will simper after brooding n’er-do-wells they invariably address as “baby”. A world will be conjured in which every woman is a weak, willing victim and every man an unmitigated tosser and dark intimations of sexual exploitation and violence will co-exist with a kind of 80s Athena poster version of dangerous masculinity: whatever the song, she will invariably sound like she’s singing to a monochrome Matt Dillon lookalike in a white vest, carrying a truck tyre against a desert backdrop, a cigarette dangling from his bruised lips.

The artwork for Norman Fucking Rockwell!
An Athena poster version of masculinity … the artwork for Norman Fucking Rockwell! Photograph: Record Company Handout

Naysayers quibble that essentially making the same album over and over again represents a failure of imagination: Del Rey wasn’t joking when she admitted she had “already said everything I wanted to say” after the release of her debut album in 2012. To her fans, however, she is the musical equivalent of a genre fiction novelist or short story writer whose work concentrates in one area. After all, no one ever complained that Raymond Chandler kept wanging on about seedy private eyes and bitchy platinum blondes.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! offers evidence for the prosecution and the defence. The formula is intact. Everything proceeds at a glacial pace, strings swell cinematically, guitars twang Twin Peaks-ishly; Del Rey and producer Jack Antonoff put the studio’s reverb unit through its paces, and we once more find ourselves in the presence of ladies saying things like, “I’ll make you real proud of your baby” and “If you hold me without hurting me you’ll be the first who ever did” to a new selection of unmitigated tossers: callous drug addicts, fly-by-nights, abusers, self-absorbed musicians, etc. “John met me by the training yard / Cuts on his face ’cause he fought too hard,” she sings on How to Disappear. “I love that man like no other,” she adds. You don’t say.

And yet, as on Lust for Life (2017), which stirred a dollop of Trump-era apocalyptic dread into the mix, the formula is subject to subtle alterations. The action has moved to the neighbourhoods of Laurel and Topanga Canyons, and the lyrics are filled with references to music made by their celebrated late-60s denizens, from Mama Cass to Graham Nash to Joni Mitchell. A lot of its tracks open with solo piano before the strings crash in, in the manner of Neil Young’s A Man Needs a Maid. The protagonist of the title track is beset by the suspicion that her Matt Dillon-a-like may be a little too self-absorbed for his own good – “man-child … know-it-all” – which, by the standards of Del Rey’s universe, makes her Andrea Dworkin. She is capable of devising a scenario that sounds convincing rather than caricatured. California offers an impactful female perspective on the kind of crushed masculinity Bruce Springsteen writes about. And there is also the occasional hint that Del Rey may be writing not in deadly earnest but with tongue in cheek. Or at least you hope so: “If he’s a serial killer, what’s the worst that can happen to a girl that’s already hurt?” she sings on Happiness Is a Butterfly.

Lana Del Rey: Fuck It, I Love You / The Greatest – video

Lyrics aside, the formula doesn’t preclude beautiful songwriting: beguiling, swooning melodies abound on Mariner’s Apartment Complex and Fuck It, I Love You. The disparity between a cover of Sublime’s lumpy Doin’ Time and the quality of the original tunes is unmistakable. Sometimes, the uniformity of mood and pace means that the subtlest production touches leap out: the coda of Cinnamon Girl, with its burst of EDM-ish electronics; the distorted bass that fades in and out of Happiness Is a Butterfly; the breaking glass and sirens buried deep in the mix of Next Best American Record. Elsewhere, the uniformity of tone and pace just sounds uniform, a state of affairs not much helped by the fact that a lot of the tracks feel over-long. The elegiac, end-of-summer mood of Venice Bitch sounds absolutely gorgeous, but it’s allowed to ramble on for 10 minutes, tricked out with guitar solos and extempore vocals.

Listening to Norman Fucking Rockwell! is an alternately beguiling and frustrating experience. There are moments when you willingly succumb to its sound and its songwriting, counteracted by moments when you just think: oh God, here we go again. Its author is clearly very talented but it’s hard not to wish that she would broaden her perspective, adopt a different persona, shake things up a little. Eight years and five albums on, that seems unlikely: Del Rey isn’t in the business of springing surprises, which may account for why her business is still flourishing.

This week Alexis listened to

Floating Points – Last Bloom
The latest from Sam Shepherd is an intriguing mix of sonic loveliness and unsettling agitation: flecks of beautiful ambient tones undercut by a fidgety, intense rhythm track.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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