Since she burst onto the scene with “Video Games,” Lana Del Rey has formed a nearly impenetrable aesthetic, combining nostalgia and Americana with a distinct 21st century way of carrying herself — remember when she tweeted “I won’t not f you the f up” to rapper Azaelia Banks? Her pessimistic lyrics and online persona, combined with visuals often featuring film grain, old cars and a heavy dose of mid-20th century America worship created a juxtaposition that put Del Rey solidly in her own lane in the greater pop scene.
While that unique image sold millions of records and turned her into a certified pop superstar, it always felt shallow and one-dimensional to me; the persona of someone who says they are “born in the wrong generation,” but listens to trap-pop and trip-hop.
That’s what makes her newest album, “Norman F** Rockwell!,” such a resounding success—she has formed her “sadcore” image into something far more layered than on her previous efforts, something more confident and far more interesting.
On this new album, Del Rey’s lyrics are upfront. “Goddamn, man-child,” she sings on the album’s opening track, “You f* me so good I almost said ‘I love you’.” Del Rey’s lyrics have always been about love, but the writing on “Norman F** Rockwell!” is greatly improved from the fake deep feelings she had put on her previous material. Del Rey is no longer the brooding, traditionalist writer of albums past. This is the album of someone with a complicated life, someone who took a long path to get to where she is today. “Don't ask if I'm happy, you know that I'm not / But at best, I can say I'm not sad / 'Cause hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have,” she croons on the album’s finale. With “Norman F** Rockwell!,” Lana has finally figured out how to write about herself in a way that doesn’t feel trite. It’s a massive step forward for an artist whose life is ripe for great writing and interesting anecdotes.
Musically, Del Rey has ditched the trap-pop of her previous work for a more authentic ‘70s-era sound. By attaching her extremely 2019 lyrics to dreamy, vintage baroque pop, Del Rey makes her writing and visuals feel all the more lived in and accurate. It’s a huge upgrade over her previous work. Many artists who create ‘70s-inspired tunes become too focused on achieving perfect replicas of the era, but Del Rey and pop superstar producer Jack Antonoff fit in just enough modern pop influences to create a stunningly unique sound. It’s something that’s incredibly hard to pull off and that I’ve only heard one other time this year, on Weyes Blood’s “Titanic Rising.” This is perhaps best heard in the nine-minute long track “Venice B****,” an elegant neo-psychedelic journey through droning synths, warbled electric guitars and blissful vocal melodies. Other tracks, such as “Happiness is a butterfly,” tone down the instrumentation, pairing Del Rey with only a lone piano. It’s achingly beautiful.
All this is not to say “Norman F** Rockwell!” is a perfect album. The back half suffers from a sense of sameyness. “The Next Best American Record” is a textbook “old Lana” track that doesn’t really make a lot of sense on this record. “Doin’ Time” is fine, but feels out of place compared to the other better written tracks Lana has on the record.
The nice thing is that those issues are easily overlooked because the rest of the album is good enough to make me ignore that stuff. This album is a bold statement from Del Rey, a proclamation of a new, more varied direction. Excuse my Lana-inspired language, but “Norman F** Rockwell!” is simply, really f** good.
Edited by Joe Cross | firstname.lastname@example.org