Review Summary: As a piece of theater, Lana Del Rey can still make some pretty great music.
As it tends to happen with a fair share of rising pop acts, this far the hype around Lana Del Rey seems to be all about questioning her authenticity. Her empty eyes, drawled melodies and sedated vocal performances, plus a pair of lips that are supposedly as fake as her name, everything raises doubts about Ms. Del Rey validity as a performer. Having an album released in 2010 under her given name (Lizzy Grant), and one that’s not bad at all, hardly helps. What’s really surprising is that, even in post-Lady Gaga times, we still haven’t learn that, sometimes, a character is the most authentic expression of an artist. So Lana’s theater, and what exactly is wrong with that?
Her pseudonym agrees with her looks and music: the first name is taken from golden age Hollywood star Lana Turner, mostly known for playing femme fatale roles on a bunch of noir movies; surname references Ford’s sedan produced through the decades of 1980-1990, when hip hop culture was rising, and mostly sold in Latin America. The result of that equation is Born To Die, an album that a femme fatale played by Turner would easily make, if she had by chance grown in New York, emerged on the street’s culture, and made Puerto-Rican friends in college. It’s not a coincidence that this is exactly Lizzy Grant’s story, and that’s what makes Born To Die, even if not a masterpiece, a very unique album.
Hip hop beats are a stand-out on songs like “Off To The Races” and “Diet Mtn Dew”. “Races” is an epic, making Lana recite verses that would easily pass as a rap, and that the singer’s performance take to a whole other level, with some pretty amazing uses of her higher notes. “Diet Mtn Dew” emerges as a collection of mezzo-hip hop mezzo-funk hooks and choruses. The beat, bass and piano based production take us to a nice and cheery walk in the park, as Lana delivers a very sexy rendition of the lyrics in her Lolita-like quality.
On more melodic territory, the title track has hypnotizing verses (“Sometimes love is not enough/ and the road gets tough/ I don’t know why”), introducing the album’s uniqueness without displaying all its aces in the hole. “Video Games”, on a similar pace, wasn’t the tune that created all the fuss over Lana by chance. With its brilliant lyrics and creative production that evokes the recently rediscovered love affair between pop music and harps (blame Florence + The Machine for that), the tune is an immersive musical experience.
“Million Dollar Man” is a pure jazzy ballad incremented by a beautifully high string arrangement and very subtle digital touches, but you can still hear a very traditional piano line over the most intense vocal performance of the whole album. Oh, and of course, there is “Radio”, with its ethereal quality that is, maybe, the biggest stand-out on Lana’s persona and artistry to date. Vocals are highly filtered, but that’s merely a production trick to enhance the sedated atmosphere of the song, that finds the listener easily tripping into a life that’s “sweet like cinnamon”, as Lana sings with a little bit of revenge spirit and a little bit of pop seduction.
Maybe the album’s only real fault is hyperbolic “National Anthem”, clearly overproduced and sadly throwing away at least one great melodic idea (hook: “Red, white, blue’s in the skies/ Summer’s in the air/ Baby, heaven’s in your eyes”). Rick Nowels produces two tracks that are not as notably bad, but have little to add to the album. “Dark Paradise” carries Lana’s music to dancefloor, and is surprinsingly good to hear. And “Summertime Sadness” has a compelling structure, but never really excels on gaining the listener’s sympathy.
Yes, Lana Del Rey is a character. A femme fatale willing and able to break its partner physically and emotionally, yet still a very devoted woman, with her eyes full of melancholia. She can be very alluring, but if you listen closely you can also hear Lizzy Grant working the structure of her influences, life story and intentions into the form of music. Lana is nothing but part of the oldest and more efficient tradition on pop music: dramatizing herself, exploring deeply her qualities and flaws in the form of a creation that is music and theater at the same time (and please don’t even try to put them apart), she can definitely express her truth.