Review Summary: Utterly brilliant.
"Always leave them wanting more."
It will no doubt delight the army of Lana Del Rey haters that somebody who loves her as much as I do has chosen to open a review of her debut album with a quote that's been attributed to both Phineas Taylor Barnum, the infamous scam artist, and Walt Disney, the noted creator of two-dimensional cartoon characters. Go ahead, lap up the irony and hate away; the reality is that, whoever said it, it's a statement of great value to anybody with an audience, and it's one that Lana Del Rey has obviously taken to heart.
"Video Games", the song that got the ball rolling, seems to have been around forever despite only being leaked last June, and it seems like that's exactly the point. Six months in nothing in real life, but in pop music in the hyperactive 21st century it's an eternity, long enough for trends to first appear in the mainstream, peak in popularity, and be smacked back down by the backlash (remember UK Funky?), and long enough for domestic abuse charges to be conveniently written out of history (unfortunately, you probably do
remember Chris Brown). Leaving it that long without handing out any more morsels to the fans is a risky strategy in this day and age, but it worked because Del Rey is such a magnetic figure, because the song itself is fu
cking incredible, and because it's the kind of track that sounds timeless the second you hear it. Actually, 'timeless' isn't quite right; it's more out of time entirely (the song's title notwithstanding). There isn't a period in pop's history where "Video Games" wouldn't have sounded out of step with everything else that was going on - no, not even the '50s and early '60s, despite Del Rey's obvious affection for that era.
The funny thing about "Video Games", and the long wait for anything new after it, is that I don't think I would have bothered listening to it if she'd released another single that summer. The title put me off, if I'm being honest; whether it was ignorance, snobbery, or something else, I couldn't imagine how a good song could have a name like "Video Games", especially with a pretty girl singing it. I just assumed it would be another instance of a Zooey Deschanel-esque character desperately pandering to the geek market because they're an easy sell. It was only three months later, when people were still taking about it (and we're talking about real people here, not people who may or may not have been paid to talk about it), that I caved and listened to it, and was blown away by how tragic it was. That's the word that sums up "Video Games" better than anything; it's a sweet, innocent love story ruined by a guy who loves Call of Duty more than he loves human contact and affection. It's not pandering to the geek market so much as viciously skewering it; if the 'Forever Alone' meme has a soundtrack, it's this song.
And then, with nothing to keep us going but hastily-made YouTube videos of other songs that we weren't sure would make the album (or, for that matter, were even sung by Lana at all), we waited. Even I, at the relatively tender age of 25, can remember a time when this used to be normal, but in 2011 it's positively bizarre; weirdly, there was a sense of nostalgia about the whole thing (one ramped up by the nostalgic value of "Video Games" itself). There was also a sense of dread as well - what if she was taking so long because she just didn't have any other songs?
And then the epic "Born to Die" leaked, and was arguably even better
. Crucially, it felt more like the product of Lana Del Rey specifically, rather than the kind of song anybody could have sung convincingly - admittedly, that's not strictly true of "Video Games" either, but "Born to Die" ramped up our insight into Rey's persona. There was danger here ('do you like your girls insane?'), and there was sex appeal ('let me *** you hard in the pouring rain'), but the most important moment comes in the lavish video, where amidst all the fire and tigers and in-car sex and general opulence, the camera pans in on Rey's face as she sings the lines 'sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough, I don't know why', and she looks genuinely scared and lost. You can hear it in her voice too, even though it takes the video to make it obvious - it's another song that, in its own way, is a little tragic too. And then came "Off to the Races", dropped a matter of days before the album; an about-face from both "Video Games" and "Born to Die", with an insidious melody, a hard beat, and a dark atmosphere, it's a drug ballad disguised as a love song, with a sound pitched between the soundtracks to The Matrix
and Pulp Fiction
. It's also clumsy in its intro, and even that feels like a strength, a quirk that sets her aside from her peers - not only does it suit the cocaine-themed lyric, but in the hyper-clinical world of pop, when was the last time a single by an artist with this much publicity could be described as 'clumsy'? Hype be damned, backlash be damned, this is the best run of pop singles in living memory. Add "Blue Jeans", another song that's been around for a while (and another one that's reminiscent of Tarantino), to that list and it starts to look frightening. If Lana Del Rey is the manufactured puppet her naysayers are so keen to tell everybody she is (and I really could not give less of a shi
t whether she is), then it just makes me wish everybody else was this manufactured too. An amazing song written by twenty men in a think-tank is an amazing song regardless.
These four songs line up in this album's first four slots, which feels like a bad decision - people who've never heard her before will be blown away, but I suspect that most of the people that get this will have heard at least two of these songs, and anybody that's heard all four will be tempted to skip them to hear the eight new songs that make up the rest of the album. Even if they don't, they're still the best four songs on the album, and rattling them all off so early opens the album up to accusations of blowing its load early. The transition to "Video Games" into the quasi-boom bap "Diet Mountain Dew" is pretty jarring too, creating another cut-off point between the singles and the rest of the songs.
Yet, after creating a situation where it would be easier to fail than succeed, Born to Die
succeeds anyway. There are highlights strewn through these eight tracks; the gorgeous "Radio" stands out instantly, another gentle hip-hop beat tied to a classy atmosphere that almost ascends into Cocteau Twins territory at times, while the melody of "National Anthem" is pretty hard not to get carried away on, and the spooked "Summertime Sadness" is a deliciously doomy way to wind the album down, with some great vocal harmonies. (I also like that it reminds me of "Sweet Harmony" by The Beloved, but that's probably a link nobody else will make.)
There are flaws, naturally. "National Anthem" re-uses the 'take your body downtown' lyric from "Video Games", which feels a little lazy, and the lyrics of "Dark Paradise" are constructed completely from obvious platitudes about dying and the afterlife. That track in particular sees Rey lose grip of the personality she puts into her other songs, making it an odd fit for an album otherwise preoccupied with the emotional complexities of disintegrating relationships. "This Is What Makes Us Girls" is a tricky one too; it's got a good chorus but the verses are largely a re-hash of ideas from earlier in the album, and it's not made clear whether or not that's intentional. Having said that, these are flaws that are both easily overlooked and not all that damaging to the album anyway - truthfully, they run off after a few listens, once you've accepted that there's a step down in quality after "Video Games". There's no certainly no shame in that, though; if "Million Dollar Man" and "Diet Mountain Dew" are what constitutes 'filler' in Lana Del Rey's world, then the Rihannas and Perrys of the world might as well give up on making albums altogether.
And yet, the heights it reaches at its best still
leave you wanting more. Born to Die
is a brilliant album, but it's one that leaves room for a few improvements, and inspires confidence that they'll happen. Like the characters at the heart of her best songs, I'm torn - between being delighted that Born to Die
is every bit as good as I'd hoped it would be, and imagining where the next few steps will take her. Then again, if her recent history is anything to go by, we probably won't find out for another few years. Better to happy with what we've already got - a classy, charismatic, beautifully sung pop album that gets better with each listen, and that can stand up to any other in the past ten years.