Updated: 7 days ago
Author: Sam Seliger
Lana Del Rey is an artist full of contradictions. Born and raised in New York, she has embraced the culture and geography of southern California. Her singing and composition often recall the loungy jazz and pop of the 1950s and early ‘60s, yet hip-hop exerts a dramatic influence. She embraces a Marilyn Monroe-draped in an American flag aesthetic of national pride and unbridled personal optimism, yet her music is melancholic and often downright depressing.
These contradictions may explain some of why critics looked at her so unfavorably in the earlier part of her career. They called her disingenuous, especially when she struggled, at times, to syncretize those opposing themes in her early work.
But it would be impossible to say that now. On her fifth major album, the singer born Lizzy Grant has assembled a glorious collection of music, brilliantly subversive in its ability to at first conform to dated expectations, then to undermine them, with an almost-nihilistic outlook perfect for the Great American Clusterf*** in which we live. The optimism of Rockwell’s work with Del Rey’s resigned cynicism is brilliant. Even the album’s title is a mess of contradiction: she slapped a curse word in the middle of the name of the man who illustrated the boy scout handbook to title an album with no shortage of sex and drugs: how is that for subversive?
On the title track, which opens the album, she offers a blazing criticism of a self-obsessed “intellectual” man, wrapped in layers of unsurprised disappointment. “You’re just a man, it's just what you do. Your head in your hands as you color me blue,” she laments, emphasizing the problematic masculinity with her own unique brand of femininity.
She lobs insults at the “resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all” who never shuts up about himself with a wit akin to her male spiritual analog Father John Misty, while simultaneously critiquing heady millennial sadbois such as Misty himself.
Del Rey brings her soft-spoken melodicism and misty melodrama to new heights with the aid of A-list producer Jack Antonoff (the man behind Taylor Swift’s “Lover” and “1989,” and Lorde’s “Melodrama”), who co-wrote more than half of the album. Antonoff leaves his pop campiness and radio-friendly bounce at the door, instead serving up Del Rey’s midtempo burners on top of gentle piano, with a restrained helping of fuzzed-out guitar and topped off with understated strings. On “The greatest,” guitar and violin add to the drama of Del Rey’s wavering voice, driving the chorus into its climax.
On the surprising cover of “Doin’ Time,” by California ska punk icons Sublime, dusty drums recall old-school hip-hop, and the two-chord piano vamp is accented by whining strings that mimic west coast G-funk. It is a fascinating reinvention: the forced white boy faux-rap of the original has been replaced with a more natural synthesis of indie pop and hip-hop. Del Rey tugs and pulls at the melody, evening out the vocal delivery of the original, and using her sultry lower register to bring the most out the lyrics’ dramatic longing.
“Venice Bitch” is a nine-and-a-half minute voyage. “Feel like I’m fresh out of f***s forever,” Del Rey begins, her voice oscillating up and down along with the acoustic guitar behind her. “You’re in the yard, I light the fire, and as the summer fades away nothing gold can stay,” goes the chorus. She paints her own American dream, like Norman F***ing Rockwell himself. But she seems to recognize the impossible ideality of it, labeling herself the insanity to her lover’s beauty.
On the slow-burning “The Next Best American Record,” Del Rey blends cynicism and self-confidence with deeper human emotion. While she keeps repeating “we were so obsessed with writing the next best American record, ‘cause we were just that good,” she seems to also be finding something new. She mourns the loss of her old love, yet she embraces the present, mimicking the club-friendly sounds of mainstream pop as she dances in the moment, cautiously approaching a new emotion, her voice rising with gentle enthusiasm.
On the gentle doo-wop of “How to disappear,” she starts with uncertainty. The strings alternate between major and minor, as a drum machine clicks away 6/8 time. Del Rey sings about classic California melodrama: walking down the boardwalk with her boyfriend, drenched in sadness as he consoles her.
But there is always something deeper: “You just crack another beer, and pretend that you’re still here,” she sings, even though she seems intent on her love for him. By the end of the song, Del Rey is reminiscing on her time before stardom, but she looks forward. No more disappearing over sparse drum machines; now, she promises not to go anywhere.
If anything, this is the biggest contradiction on “Norman F***ing Rockwell!” but it is also the most surprising and unexpected. Despite all her despair, Del Rey has hope. While she may seem resigned to the end of the world, citing California wildfires, Martian exploration and Kanye West as evidence, Del Rey has not given up just yet, and she realizes just how powerful that resilience is.
On the closing song, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have - but I have it,” she says “Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not, but at best I can say I’m not sad,” acknowledging that even in the worst of times, when there is no reason to continue, simply having hope can be enough to keep going. Now that is a contradiction.