Review Summary: So, it seems that subtlety, nuance and alt-learnings actually wins the day making this one of the better pop debuts of the 2010’s.
“Blurring the lines between real and the fake” Lana briefly tosses away in the bridge of National Anthem, the 5th single from Born To Die. Some artists perfectly recapitulate their musical persona and artistry in their own art and it seemed that Lana wanted to be that artist right from the start. And it certainly summed up the Born To Die era perfectly with its melodramatic tendencies that perfectly accommodated the inauthentically authentic tracks that somehow fitted the musical, vocal and lyrical landscape.
Lyrically, we get to hear subordination disguised as lovesickness (Dark Paradise, Summertime Sadness and Without You), some quasi-sexual-empowerment (lyrical guilty pleasures Lolita and Cola), the anthem dedicated to her haters (Radio) and half-hearted stabs at social commentary (National Anthem and This Is What Makes Us Girls). So it's pretty much the standard pop package. If only it was as simple as that. This is proven if you closely examine her voice, which manages to trickle out a semblance of emotion despite the fact that beyond the surface, there is a certain vacancy where genuine heartache should reside. Even the two main genres that this alt-pop album possess are pretty much at odds with each other: there seems to be a certain calculated, manufactured approach to operatic music that seems to downright contradict the supposed authenticity of hip-hop. This is then combined with the fact that the lyrics actually possesses a lethal dependency on love even as Lana sounds like she’d rather be at a poetry reading to make the ultimate in pop music. This apathetic obsession is pop beauty at its finest which makes this album something more than it should’ve been.
Despite the fact that the the album initially sounds like it’s some boring music not designed for the general listener, the tracks from Born To Die are genuinely well-constructed songs that stand up to modern-day scrutiny. The opening title track, for example, perfectly sets the scene for 23 tracks of hip-hop infused, operatic relational drama. Despite it being one of the lengthiest tracks on the album at nearly five minutes, it isn’t lacking in the hooks department. The more hip-hop inflected tracks including This Is What Makes Us Girls, Lolita and National Anthem ends up proving to be the catchiest if not the most impactful tracks on the album. Summertime Sadness has an inescapable hook that was destined for pop radio surrounded by the operatic sound that informs most of the album making it another obvious standout
If I had to use a single track to sum up the album as a whole (a very difficult proposition indeed), This Is What Makes Us Girls might as well be it. It demonstrates the aforementioned beauty effortlessly as the swelling chords in the chorus absolutely wallows in the pitiful reality of friendships among the mentioned “girls” all the while maintaining a sense of edge and distance thanks to the hip-hop beats in the chorus and verses. The overarching impression is one of Lana as a disembodied ghost recounting the beauty and tragedy of faux-empowering female friendship. That ghostly presence breaks for a rare moment throughout the final section of the bridge just before the grand finale when you can sense pure, unadulterated emotion in her presence as she recounts having to leave her girlfriends behind with tears in her eyes when “stuff got bad”. This is purely down to the swelling chords in the bridge only seen in the chorus. It’s pure perfection that grows on you the more you listen to it. The only thing holding this track back from basking in pure pop royalty is simply the flimsiness in the social commentary side of it: while the verses recount Lana’s wild-child years with her friends, the titular chorus tries to offer a mela cuppa on the unfair societal expectations for females to put all their relationships on hold when a man enters their life and probably would have if it wasn’t for the fact that the verses have only the slightest relation to the chorus and the surrounding songs (mainly Dark Paradise and Without You) promotes that very same expectation that Lana is potentially critiquing with the same level of self-awareness as Girls.
While I would love to discuss the Paradise extension in the same level of depth as the Born To Die section and believe that I’d do a decent job of it if I had have reviewed it separately, in the context of reviewing the reissue edition going into the same level of description and detail would be made pretty redundant. Why is that? Paradise is a decent addition to Born To Die but it’s nothing that Born To Die hasn’t done. It’s purely an extension of what was covered on Born To Die which, despite lacking any of the innovation that her next album Ultraviolence would offer, also means that there're no major disasters on that half not to mention that some of the tracks are genuine highlights out of the two disks. Cola’s lyrics certainly are controversial but they’re arguably more empowering than anything else on the album, Gods & Monster is surprisingly darker than the rest of the album with a catchy chorus and rock elements to boot not to mention that the chorus of Body Electric is a rush but it’s basically adding different hues to the era rather than signposting any major changes of direction for Lana. For what it’s worth, getting the Paradise version adds much-needed value and you can find it at a bargain price these days especially from the digital marketplace: you get the deluxe version of the standalone Born To Die album along with the Paradise EP so even if you’re getting it just for one of the discs, you’d actually be better off just buying the reissue so that you can get the best value possible.
So are there any flaws to the album major enough to bring the overall rating down? Well, while the album certainly won't sink into the ground like pop music that caters to a fad does, song after song of taking your red dress on/off and not being anything without your partner get's pretty tiresome especially in the context of pop music today. This won’t exactly be the album that the social conscious will sing along to without any remorse. The actual music itself is pretty redundant at first glance at times due to it not having change from the hip-hop married Hollywood operatic template well established from the lead singles although individual flourishes added to each track makes the songs stand out over repeated listens. It’s certainly unique in pop but in its own vacuum, it can be just plain exhausting.
So, it seems that subtlety, nuance and alt-learnings actually wins the day making this one of the better pop debuts of the 2010’s. Sure there were a lot of things that needed to be worked on but what the public got was an album that deserved all the critical acclaim and commercial success it got, even if it did get depressing at times.