Review: Lana Del Rey, “Born To Die”

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “Born To Die”, the album by Lana Del Rey, which originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.

Video Games, the lead-off single from Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die, was ridiculously off-trend. If you had said twelve months ago that 2012’s first breakout star would be most often compared to Twin Peaks chanteuse Julee Cruise, you would have been politely ushered out of the room, but Video Games seemed ready-made for a film noir soundtrack, with Del Rey a 21st century fembot fatale.

Video Games was self-released with a YouTube video collage of scratchy archive footage, interspersed with Del Rey herself pouting collagenically into the camera. Proceeding at funereal pace, the song is undeniably captivating – minor piano chords; an insistent, nagging chorus – and hinted teasingly at subversion of a more spiritual nature. The song combined teenage lust with a sort of spaced-out, secular devotion – “Heaven is a place on earth with you” sang Del Rey, “It’s you, it’s you / It’s all for you”. The title of the album – “Born To Die” – toyed with this doomy, contemplative feeling further.

And so came the hype, swiftly followed by the backlash, and then the backlash to the backlash. For a while, Lana Del Rey’s were the lips on everyone’s lips. The writer Caitlin Moran tweeted of her desire for some kind of meter to tell her “what ‘we’ thought of Lana Del Rey each hour, so I don’t miss any sea-changes”. Across the music press, Del Rey’s privileged background, the alarmingly submissive content of Video Games’ lyrics, and even her changing her name from Lizzy Grant to her performing name were somehow seen as important revelations of inauthenticity.

Video Games hangs heavily over the twelve wildly-inconsistent tracks of Born To Die, with none capturing the lightning-in-the-bottle feel of that first single. Indeed, the subtle mix of sex, hedonism and attitude that made Video Games so enticing is here amplified and distorted – like a love poem yelled through a megaphone. “I heard you like the bad girls, honey” is distilled into the opening title track’s rather blunt line “You like your girls insane”, and there are plenty more examples to alarm all good feminists.

On the question of inauthenticity, Del Rey is clearly playing with archetypes in these songs – as witnessed by the exhaustive list of ‘50s-era references sprinkled across the album. Unfortunately, the archetypical role that Del Rey frequently plays throughout the album is not particularly likeable – obsessed with money and James Dean-esque bad boys, Del Rey comes across as less a teenage rebel than a spoilt brat, continually putting on red dresses and cooing knuckle-chewingly embarrassing come-ons, like the awful National Anthem’s “Money is the reason we exist / Everybody knows it, it’s a fact, kiss kiss”.

The album’s inconsistency is thanks to the muddled production which seems to be caught in two minds whether to apply Video Games’s simplicity to the other eleven tracks. There’s often a “throw the kitchen sink at it” approach to each song, with Badalamenti-style twangy guitar rubbing awkwardly against Timbaland-inspired beats and digital squelches worthy of William Orbit. You get the feeling that – given a producer with more of a singular vision, a Jon Brion, for example – Del Rey could do something a little more unique, but there’s a belated attempt with a lot of these tracks to kow-tow to current trends – like the way Summertime Sadness’s stuttered title apes Rihanna’s Umbrella.

Where Del Rey veers most dramatically from Video Games’ format – Off To The Races sung coquettishly in her higher register, or National Anthem’s ill-advised venture into rap – she falters, as her experimentation turns deadpan allure into dispassionate aloofness. However, on later album tracks like Million Dollar Man and Dark Paradise we see glimpses of Del Rey’s melancholy. In Dark Paradise in particular, she’s a haunted woman looking across the great divide of death, singing that she is “scared that you won’t be waiting on the other side”. A welcome sense of genuine contemplation, but not exactly a rigorous exploration of her soul. At the very least, she drops the name-checking and gets on with telling us how she feels. Born To Die is not a good album, but in these deep album cuts, where old-fashioned emotion rises above contemporary materialism, it’s a relief to see that there might be a little life for Lana beyond the one-hit wonder.

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