Review Summary: Lana drops some of the excess from 'Born to Die' and forges a more focused collection of songs.
I was quite oblivious to all the drama surrounding Lana Del rey when I first heard 'Video Games' on Letterman. As it stands, it was probably the most exciting song I'd heard in mainstream music for a year or two. I'm guessing this is what many people felt when they saw Adele perform 'Someone like you', except 'Video Games' was actually good. It was one of those songs that sounded like an instant classic - haunting, beautiful and most of all interesting. It also sounded like an update of the similarly named 'Videotape' from Radiohead, but better - infused with feminine complexity.
Naturally, I was excited to pick up Born to Die, and the title track was just as spectacular. Sadly, for me, the rest of the album was supremely uneven. Songs like 'National Anthem' were simply too train wreck-ish to like - fascinating in that 'what were you thinking' way. I think I secretly enjoy listening to that particular track because it's so laughably bad and yet promising at the same time.
Lana has had to endure some real backlash - she had ditched her previous image, she denied 'modifications', she had one bad performance on SNL, etc, etc. Lana is a modern star who loves the mythic grandeur attached to retro counterparts such as Marilyn Monroe. She has clearly sacrificed much to build her current, albeit implausible, image - and I say for that, you have to give her respect. I don't think many would plunge as deep into a faux world as Lana - her devotion to the demands of her construct almost give her authenticity of a different kind.
The truth is though, that despite what some would have you believe, Lana also has a great voice that is unique within the current landscape of pop. It has a vintage quality unlike the current jazz and soul revival (you know who I'm talking about). It's a heavy voice - pleasant to listen to, but demanding at the same time. I think it's pretty darn wonderful, to be honest.
So Paradise was actually the record I was waiting for - it has tamed the wilder aspects of Born to Die, and concentrated more on its strengths. Not sure I understand the EP format - when it's just a few songs, I feel it offers the freedom to make mistakes. When it approaches album length as this does, it's confusing as it seems the margins for error are actually less than a full length.
'Ride' is a great song, possibly just looking for something a little stronger in the chorus. The verse is legendary - she sings her lines with such gravelly aplomb that it sounds like someone is dropping a mellotron suspended by a crane onto a dimly lit diner. It gets a bit more urgent on the bridges, and the appropriate motion is created in the song. The end of the song swells into a heartfelt admission that stands out amidst all the layers. Too bad that the breezy 'Ride' chorus feels a little unfinished, and that the full video is filled with pretentious Levi ad nonsense.
'American' shows a promising Tori Amos influence, imbuing the song with a sparkling interlude amidst all the strings. 'Cola' has one of those frustrating 'shock' lines that Lana seems to have a penchant for. However, it's such a strong outing, humming along with equal parts groove and restraint until a small but thrilling climax - somehow it sounds like she's howling at the moon while sipping a martini. 'Body Electric' takes her spoken verse formula and makes it more musical - when she uses her higher register it provides a more effective counterpoint than previous outings such as 'National Anthem'.
The only parts of the EP which drag a bit for me is the unnecessary cover of 'Blue Velvet' (it's a bit obvious really) and what I believe is a reworking of an older song 'Yayo' - this is frankly dull and drowns in a pool of vocal overload and miasma.
The ominous 'Gods and Monsters' sports a more mechanical beat with some ironic references to her current career. This song captures her recurring theme of 'you gotta do what you gotta do', as well as the damaging nature of addiction to fame. Even the shock factor works here, and I think this highlights that while 'Paradise' doesn't break much new ground for Lana, it does hint at greener pastures.
EP closer 'Bel Air' brings a welcome delicate touch to the proceedings and I think it's a good respite from the menacing, broken nature of the rest of the album.
Lyrically, 'Paradise' suffers some of the same heavy handedness that crippled 'Born to Die'. There are too many clichés, there are some silly provocative lines, and the themes are limited. But Lana does manage to convey the desperate and stifling need to be noticed with more elegance. She also manages to tone down some of the weak hip hop slang and cooing bow wow type filler words. In other words, you don't have to cringe all the way through like with 'Born to Die', and there is something that stays with you after the record stops turning (or the bits stop flowing I guess).
With some lyrical refinement and without the dead weight in this lean 8 track taster, I think it would have been more of a 4, 4.5 pop record. I actually think if six of the tracks on 'Paradise' had married five of the cuts on 'Born to Die', it could have been sweet. Let's hope for the future...