Lana Del Rey didn’t have a chance, but at least she’s aware of this fact. Titling her album Born to Die, the former Lizzy Grant is certainly in on the joke – even if her multitudes of humorless haters aren’t. Forget the authenticity questions and the bitter backlash, the greatest downside of Internet age musicians isn’t half-baked live performance – it’s the rush to capitalize on the first crest of celebrity.
In that sense, Born to Die is a typical album. It starts strong, including the two singles that fans first fell in love with, “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans.” But about halfway through, Del Rey is out of material. Nearly all the songs include orchestral swells, hip-pop beats, and a stable of of distorted vocal samples. Snares rattle and linger, strings weep. Considering the year that the spacey producers behind The Weeknd, Balam Acab, and Clams Casino had, it’s no surprise, but the sound can’t be sustained over a pop album.
Yes, the lyrics are immature, telling tales of teen girl fantasy. The imagery is heavy on the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” qualifiers – bikinis, red nail polish, every liquor consumed in rap videos and strip clubs. But it’s all very intentional, and well suited for the intended audience. One of the more maligned lyrics, the breathlessly dropped “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice” on “This is What Makes Us Girls,” is not to be taken at face value: it’s exactly the kind of drink that teen girls, dabbling in debauchery, would find palatable and popular. Just listen to the rest of the lyrics: “Sweet sixteen and we had arrived / Baby’s table dancin’ at the local dive… Drinkin’ cherry schnapps in the velvet night… A freshmen generation of degenerate beauty queens.” Pop music is chiefly for teenagers; nothing has changed since Please Please Me. Lana Del Rey’s lyrics will resonate with her audience, even if they don’t do anything for music critics.
The title track kicks off with an orchestral swell out of a Disney soundtrack, and then it’s “Off to the Races” (pun intended), on which Del Rey squeals and squeaks like the Lolita the song depicts. As expected, “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” are the tightest, most nuanced pop songs on the record, but “Diet Mountain Dew’s” piano melody and upbeat drumming make it a contender, as well. Del Rey’s pouty spoken word lyrics on “National Anthem” are just that, describing the celebs-and-cash world in which her persona exists. An undercurrent of bass and strings reminiscent of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” distract from the fact that “tell me I’m your national anthem” is a bit silly for a rallying cry.
Here’s where the album loses itself. The music becomes repetitive and Del Rey’s lyrics and melodies aren’t enough to rescue it. “Dark Paradise” is a recast “Born to Die;” “Summertime Sadness” nearly shares a melody with “National Anthem.” With a verse like a Nicole Atkins b-side, “Radio” is promising, but its (literally) saccharine chorus loses the script. On “Carmen,” Del Rey muses about a girl “only seventeen, but she walks the streets so mean;” this is territory well-worn by contemporaries Marina and the Diamonds and Sky Ferreira. The outlier here is the simple “Million Dollar Man,” a jazz lounge number evocative of Fiona Apple which is surprisingly warm despite the unnecessary inclusion of digital noise.
These days, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes have been reduced to 15 seconds, and albums are released before an album’s worth of material is ready. Worse yet, albums present an incomplete portrait of an artist. Where is the playful femme fatale of “Kinda Outta Luck?” Why omit the pitch-perfect bonus track “Lolita,” when it’s Sleigh Bells-meets-cheerleader cheer would be a welcome change of pace? On Born to Die, streamlining Lana Del Rey compresses her into an overproduced version of herself. Not coincidentally, Lana Del Rey’s lyrical fascination with the dark side of Hollywood (the starlet / harlot dichotomy, youth consumed and flames extinguished) is as applicable to today’s pop music world as ever.
Wow, Chris, this is the best review of this album I’ve seen yet. You are a very good writer. Thank you for your well-articulated point of view.
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