Review Summary: I was one thing, now I’m being another
To be completely morbid for a moment: this shitty, violent and hateful decade hasn’t been kind to many who are melting under the magnified gaze of mirrored evil we encounter every time the closest screen shows us the worst we’re capable of, but it has proven to be serendipitous for the narrative of Lana Del Rey. I don’t want to minimize the suffering of others or inflate the importance of one Elizabeth Woolridge Grant but it’s pivotal to point out how both the always latent prescience and budding growth the artist has brought to her music over the last decade dovetail beautifully as a statement of maturity and poise on Norman Fucking Rockwell
. Because the personal is political and vice versa, Lana Del Rey can’t seem to help but realize that to weep for America is to weep for yourself, and this is her sustained wail over the flames of destruction and rebirth, both for herself and the world at large. America as she’s always pined for it can’t last, even in dreams; love as she’s always accepted it can’t last, even in a song. Norman Fucking Rockwell
is the moment when one of pop’s greatest enigmas wakes up to the nightmare she’s living in and uncovers it as a great hoax of our own doing: hers, yours, mine. Narrative has been replaced by genuine introspection, kitsch has been supplanted by bitter truths, and the lights have been dimmed accordingly: it’s the end of the world, and ourselves, as we know it, so best to have a drink and get on with it.
Because Del Rey can’t escape the past, the album opens with a trademark smirking kiss-off; ‘you fucked me so good I almost said I love you
’ is a blunt but intriguingly elusive taunt that ticker tapes across the entirety of the album until the credits roll alongside the elegiac “Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have-But I Have It”. Whereas before Del Rey’s vision was always either sepia-toned or silver and gold, the omnipresent darkness of our present times has seeped into every facet on display here. A truly impressive trick (which I’m hesitant to call such as I’m swooned by the ache and ardor shown here) that Lana manages to pull off is that even when ostensibly telling the truth, ambiguity still hangs in the air. By liberally referencing her back catalogue and various other artists, she presents the listener with an intersection of fact and fiction that proves hypnotic in its fatalistic suggestions. ‘Dream a little dream of me
’ she sings, a wink wrapped in reference and nostalgia, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the most heart stopping and heartfelt melody of her career thus far, amplified further by the crucial but fleeting moments of silence before it blossoms out of the ether. It’s a gorgeous moment of idyllic respite punctuated by the following lines’ plea for her lover to ‘make me into something sweet
’, yearning for the shelter of a simple pop song before exclaiming with abandon, fuck it, I love you
. There’s a newfound desperation in her voice here that lends inspiration and authenticity to an obsession of Del Rey’s: of plumbing the past to dignify or fix the present. It seems at first like a patent Lana-ism, but: consider the way it also looks back to that opening barb, and how flushed and hushed the artist sounds, how this backward glance culls from her own past this time to reach an overwhelmed declaration of love. She’s taken a hallmark of her ~aesthetic~ and twisted it around on herself so that there’s nowhere to hide anymore, and she manages to do this again and again, song after song.
It’s there in “Venice Bitch”, as she sings “One dream, one life, one lover, paint me blue
” and quickly follows it with “Norman Rockwell, no hype under our covers, it’s just me and you
’. A melodramatically referential daydream morphs into the real thing, becoming simpler and truer in the process, a meta admission of anxiety and comfort. It’s certainly there in the more pointedly political “The Greatest”, where a depressed reference to the death of Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson slowly but steadily mutates into a death spiral for America, the metaphor made clear: the golden times are over and a harsh wave has come. That she presents these opinions and feelings and memories across 14 torch songs with little to no deviation in sound is very much the point; there’s now a creak in the decadence, a cold air under her beloved California sky, and a stillness to the proceedings is more than made up for with the growth she displays, from both an emotional and a songwriting perspective. Staccato pianos and weeping strings buttress breathtaking melodies that seem continuously to materialize from thin air, plucked out of a solemn silence and thrust into the spotlight. This uniformity also course corrects the thematically and tonally scatterbrained approach to sequencing that were present on Honeymoon
and Lust For Life
. But I think that it most of all simply calls attention to the numb state we as a human race find ourselves in, paralyzed with shock and grief and such greatly diminished anger. The endless scroll of chaos continues to roll on, and nothing gold can stay, but there are still things we can find solace in: love hard fought, truth, conviction, solidarity. To present these things so simply and unvarnished is essential. Hope is a dangerous thing for a world like ours to have, but we can have it. For those who’ve stuck with Lana Del Rey, hoping for all of the artist’s far-reaching strengths to fully and finally click, Norman Fucking Rockwell
represents a new golden age.