Saturday, August 31, 2019

Review: Norman Fucking Rockwell! • Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking Rockwell


Though she entered popular culture as a punching bag for most mainstream critics, Lana Del Rey found widespread popularity rooted in the romanticism of tragedy. She was a bad girl who articulated turmoil with concerning depth, painting it across saturated baroque pop with a husky smoker’s croon. And although she was dedicated to the aesthetic on her debut album, Born to Die, she slowly shed it away on her last few albums, especially between the muffled and moody Honeymoon and the strikingly optimistic Lust for Life, to reveal something a bit more lax – something that more closely intersects the carefree existence of her earliest underground days in music, prior to her major label emergence.

Displaying coolness amid turmoil, Norman Fucking Rockwell! may mark the first renaissance of Lana Del Rey. While she once sought love for manufactured catastrophe, she now seems to burrow into it to escape from the 24-hour news cycle. In doing so, she pivots on some of the staples of her music – vintage Americana, domestic despair, West Coast glamour – and uses them as a framework of a utopian America. And without outright acknowledgment of the nation's rising tensions and sociopolitical schisms, she makes it clear that this record exists in suspended reality – in a small, personal world where solace exists along the 405.

Whereas sophomore record Ultraviolence felt like an intentional, albeit very successful, detour around an obvious follow-up to her debut, Norman! feels like a natural evolution into the new standard for a Lana Del Rey record. Del Rey and first-time collaborator Jack Antonoff displace her full-bodied strings and muddy trap beats – the closest she scratches them is on "How to Disappear" and "The Next Best American Record," an alluring repurposed outtake from her last album – with some psychedelic surf-rock intentions. While ambient electric guitars simmer across "Venice Bitch" for nearly 10 minutes without tiring the track out, perhaps the record’s crowning achievement is her outstanding take on Submile's "Doin' Time." She adds musicality to the original's melody, smoothing its edges and kicking it into rhythm.

"Those nights were on fire. We couldn't get higher. We didn't know that we had it all, but nobody warns you before the fall," Del Rey sings on "The Greatest," an ode to lost culture that easily asserts itself as the album’s thesis statement. Memories of past relationships, often idealized and framed through similar nostalgia, swirl through the record's narrative. Slathered in raw harmonies, "California" tries to recapture the magic of the good times with some organic rock vibes, and "Love Song" revisits her lovestruck lyrical cornerstones: "In your car, I’m a star and I’m burning through you. Oh, be my once in a lifetime. Lying on your chest in my party dress, I'm a fucking mess." She does, however, recognize her cycle of toxic relationships on "Cinnamon Girl," the brooding centerfold cut: "If you hold me without hurting me, you'll be the first who ever did.”

An absolute triumph for Del Rey as she extends her hand to guide a troubled partner, lead single and career highlight "Mariners Apartment Complex" foreshadowed the newfound peace displayed across the record. She seems more comfortable to experiment as a major label recording artist than ever before – especially for the woman who wanted to retire after her first record. It seems like a fever dream for Lana Del Rey to boast a confident record titled Norman Fucking Rockwell! that opens with the line, "Goddamn, man-child. You fucked me so good that I almost said, 'I love you,'" and closes with an understated ode to rebellion like "Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It." But in a world that's burning quickly, an unexpectedly refreshing record like this feels even more essential than ever before.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! is available now under Interscope Records.

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Maira Gall