There’s a progression implied in the title – from Born to Die to Lust for Life, in the space of five years. For the first time, Lana Del Rey smiles on an album cover, flowers in her hair.
There’s power in images, in archetypes, particularly for someone whose identity is in flux, or beset by annihilating emotions. The critiques of Del Rey’s sad girl poses have never accounted for the real feeling that courses through them. If you’re paralysed by sadness, you might as well be beautiful, desirable, mysterious into the bargain: the image confers meaning on those feelings, allows you to live with them, even turns them into a source of power. I think part of the negative reaction to Del Rey – the way ‘authenticity’ (a weird expectation anyway in pop music) is used as a stick to beat her with – is because, unlike other sad girl singers like Julee Cruise or Beth Gibbons, she includes her awareness of the pose in her persona, in ways that raise questions about her intention and sincerity. That’s why, though she seems born for the Roadhouse stage in Twin Peaks (the guitar that opens “Get Free,” the final song on Lust for Life, is pure Angelo Badalamenti), she’s also unimaginable there: she couldn’t help subverting the inert melancholy that David Lynch goes for in women singers.
Part of the resistance to Del Rey is a simple resistance to sadness. There’s little relief on this new album; the optimism that she expresses periodically is asserted against that sadness. Even the beats, when they arrive on the choruses, do not provide a lift or release – the excitement usually promised by the arrival of rhythm – but a louring, an intensification of the feeling expressed in the verse, or, as in “13 Beaches,” the fragile equilibrium of the verse giving way to despair. It’s a very specific – and very consistent – mood, and it’s not for everyone. Part of the resistance, though, is straight-up sexism: Thom Yorke and Frank Ocean are just as sunk in gloom, but in them it’s considered a mark of seriousness. Like them, Del Rey’s emotional range is constricted, but she’s hardly the first artist to have a set of thematic preoccupations or a dominant mood, and Lust for Life takes both in interesting directions.
Del Rey’s gifts as a songwriter and musician are too little remarked, particularly the canny way she writes melody for her voice, using different parts of her range. Her voice is central to her appeal, and usually it’s front and centre in her arrangements: for me, Ultraviolence is her weakest album, largely because what’s distinctive about that voice is lost in that album’s reverb and multi-tracking. Typically, a Del Rey song – “Love,” the lead single from Lust for Life, is a good example – will start low in her range, where her voice keeps catching on its lovely, arresting croak, like a sleeve on branches. The arrangements are spare, like the simple guitar pulse on “Love,” the better to foreground her voice. Often, on the chorus, she vaults an octave, into her breathier high range; it’s like her voice is reaching out of a darkness, towards the light. This is particularly effective on “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing”: on the chorus her voice starts low, asking the question, “Is this the end of America?” before soaring to answer (and this is probably the album’s deepest optimism), “No – it’s only the beginning.” On Born to Die and Ultraviolence, there was a third, bratty voice (on “Off to the Races” and “National Anthem”), when she was playing the bimbo, the gold digger, but this has disappeared from her work. She’s an intelligent, compelling singer, conscious of her effects.
Del Rey is smart enough to know that the imagery drawn from the 50s, 60s and 70s (roughly, the Mad Men era) that so dominates her lyrics and videos plays differently in the MAGA era, when nostalgia for the lost middle class has become a weapon used against anyone outside its narrow conception of America. The signifiers on the new album are more modest: the “kids” she addresses on “Love” are dressing up “to go nowhere in particular/back to work, or the coffee shop”. The role-playing is down to a minimum: “Groupie Love,” a melodic highlight, feels like a throwback in this regard. There’s a new first-person directness to the words, and the second half of the album is an extended interrogation of her relationship with America. This leads to new strengths and exposes weaknesses, sometimes in the same song: “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind” opens with the specificity of Del Rey leaning on a girlfriend’s shoulder at a concert (one of the few times another woman has shown up in her songs), before devolving into a lazy Led Zeppelin reference on the chorus and empty showbiz promises (“I’d trade the fame and the fortune”), meaningless because Del Rey will never have to act on them. But the song also ruminates in an intelligent way on whether the goodwill generated at a music festival has any real world application, and the songs that follow – decorated with acoustic guitar and piano (and Stevie Nicks), gestures to the singer-songwriter past – have interesting things to say about America. “God Bless America – and All the Beautiful Women in It” identifies America with the women of the title, and those women with “Lady Liberty shining all night long”. The biggest misstep in this sequence is the Sean Lennon feature, “Tomorrow Never Came,” a flurry of old song titles in lieu of a lyric. Del Rey has always included quotes from classic rock in her songs (more so even than Madonna) – often effectively, as in the bit of “Space Oddity” that climaxes “Terrence Loves You,” or the bit of “Don’t Worry Baby” that serves as the coda to “Love” – but this feels lazy.
The album highlight is a character song. Given Del Rey’s public friendship with Courtney Love (and the shoutout to Love in the album notes), it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that “Heroin” is about her. In some ways she’s the perfect Del Rey subject, our generation’s most infamous example of the predicament of loving a doomed, beautiful man. Crucially, the character is older: she no longer enjoys the luxury of youth, which for Del Rey is what makes sadness beautiful. The horizon has moved in; the song’s bridge, with its organ, the percussive sound effect like a gun being cocked, the weird, blown-out harmonies, and Del Rey chanting about kids leaving “writing on my walls in blood and shit,” is disturbing in a way she has never attempted before. Her empathy for the woman “taking all my medicine/to take my thoughts away” raises the question of how Del Rey herself will age, and how her music will change as she does.