Lana Del Rey’s new lust for life
On her new album, pop's queen of sorrow changes track but only by a bit
In August, as she was performing at the Flow, an annual outdoors music and arts festival in Helsinki that is held in a defunct power plant, Lana Del Rey had an unexpected encounter: A fan got on the stage and tried to hug the American singer. Del Rey, popularly known as LDR, kept her cool, gave the man a quick hug before guards whisked him away, and kept singing. For that, the following day legions of her fans on social media, dedicated online fanzines and elsewhere hailed her as a “legend". That may be a bit of over-the-top gushing by the burgeoning millennial cohort that comprises LDR’s core fan base but it wouldn’t be off the mark to say that in the five short years since the 32-year-old’s album on a major label, Born To Die, came out, she has become one of contemporary pop music’s leading lights.
Anyone acquainted with Del Rey’s first three albums will be familiar with her carefully crafted image that draws heavily on Hollywood’s cinematic glamour of the 1950s and 1960s. Her music is what you would like to pigeonhole into the genre known as baroque pop—an amalgam of pop and orchestral classical music—but with a contemporary twist because her albums also show the influence of more modern genres, hip hop being a prominent one, and, more recently, rock ‘n’ roll. But what you would be most familiar with is LDR’s mood and undertone. Melancholia, misery and emotional suffering is at the core of all those earlier albums, be it 2012’s Born To Die, 2014’s Ultraviolence or 2015’s Honeymoon. All delivered in a captivatingly sensuous voice.
You would likely also be familiar with the backlash against much of her early oeuvre, particularly the first album, Born To Die, for which she faced criticism for portraying the protagonist in many of her songs (presumably herself) as little more than an object of desire. Example: On Blue Jeans, a song on that album, she sings about always being in love with a James Dean-like character even after he’s dumped her, promising to love him till the end of time and more “than those bitches before". Toxic relationships recur in many of Del Rey’s songs and she appears to revel in them. On the same album, in Million Dollar Man she sings: And I don’t know how you get over, get over/ Someone as dangerous, tainted and flawed as you.
Like many other listeners, when I heard Del Rey for the first time, she sounded full of potential: Her contralto vocals, the nostalgic 1950s and 1960s touch, and the orchestral arrangements, all of it was different from the other clone-like rubbish that was going on in pop music. But soon the enthusiasm faded. The recurrent themes of misery in (or out of) love, and the clichéd portrayal of relationships got a bit overwrought and tiring. Then Ultraviolence came out in 2014. Produced chiefly by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, the album is slick, but also less orchestral than Born To Die and more rock ‘n’ roll: You hear the guitar riffs, drums. The songs are bolder, and the lyrics, not cringe-worthy. On my favourite track, Brooklyn Baby, Del Rey references the 1960s and 1970s in a manner that may seem ironical: Well my boyfriend’s in the band/ He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed/ I’ve got feathers in my hair/ I get down to Beat poetry. She still is the chief protagonist in her songs, and sex, cars and drugs keep recurring in her songs, as does her inclination to fall in love or suffer break-ups with rogues.
After Ultraviolence came Honeymoon, 2015’s artistic but slow and mournful album. The standout song on that one, for me at least, is the hypnotic Terrence Loves You, with its surprise reference to David Bowie’s Space Oddity. So when her new album, Lust For Life, came out this July with her on the cover, not pouting or sullen, but sunny and beaming, I was curious to see where she was now headed. I wasn’t disappointed. On Lust For Life, Del Rey shifts the needle on the mood scale: from the despair, sadness and misery end towards the happiness, joy and ebullience end. But by only a little. The songs are not as self-centric or gloomy as on her earlier albums. A little politics too surfaces. On When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing, LDR refers to what is happening in America, but she deals with it not with activism but escapism.
Make no mistake. There is still unhappiness in her songs. But this time it is less because of flawed and toxic relationships and more because of the external environment. One song, Coachella—Woodstock In My Mind, contrasts 1969’s Woodstock music festival with this year’s Coachella and nostalgically recalls the music and popular culture of a past era. Also for the first time, Del Rey collaborates with several artists: R&B singer The Weeknd (birth name: Abel Makkonen Tesfaye), rapper A$AP Rocky, Sean Lennon, and the legendary Stevie Nicks. Tomorrow Never Came with Lennon stands out among these, not least because Lennon’s verses evoke memories of his late father’s legendary band. My favourite on the album is Heroin. It’s a ballad about the harm that heroin, both as a drug and a metaphor for fame, can wreak. LDR has clearly matured.
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Heroin’ by Lana Del Rey from ‘Lust For Life’
2. ‘Brooklyn Baby’ by Lana Del Rey from ‘Ultraviolence’
3. ‘Kinda Girl’ by Fake Laugh from ‘Fake Laugh’
4.’How to Boil An Egg’ by Courtney Barnett
5. ‘LMK’ by Kelela from ‘Take Me Apart’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan