Review Summary: Pretty. Empty.
Any artist as dependent on Americana as Lana Del Rey is giving themselves over to a delusional worldview. An idealized past is formed from the songwriting clay, given shape by music and lyrics, and made ambulatory by listeners who feel the same hunger for a time that never existed, at least not for more than a few people. As she sings on Norman Fucking Rockwell
, “You make me feel there’s something I never knew I wanted.” This is largely an innocent endeavor, not any more sinister than other types of fiction. However, it is important to remember that it is
a fiction, and its edifice – however beautiful – is only as strong as the thematic foundation underneath. NFR
stands on shaky ground.
But the edifice sure is pretty. Jack Antonoff deserves a lot of credit for the album’s unity. His piano- and guitar-driven pop sound has proven surprisingly malleable, and it fits Del Rey’s voice very well. Rife with grace notes and strings, the title track presents placid waters for her to float atop, and when she slips into a falsetto at the end, repeating the word “blue,” he submerges her beneath the production, like a baptism. “Mariners Apartment Complex” starts out like a barn-storming ballad before, fittingly, quieting down for Del Rey’s rumination about gender stereotypes and how rewarding it can be to subvert them within a relationship. The ten-minute “Venice Bitch” is pretty and an admirable experiment, but it slightly buckles under the weight of its length, and Del Rey doesn’t seem to know how to ad-lib in an interesting way, settling for a lot of mumbled “la la”-ing.
Cutting the songs that Antonoff didn’t produce would have made the album much stronger. Her cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” seems appropriate for her but is ultimately pointless, the first song to break the reverie of NFR
after the strong opening quartet. In the album’s latter half, “California”, “The Next Best American Record”, and “Bartender” all sound vaguely cohesive but have sections that drag, and their proximity to each other means that the back half of the album is not nearly as strong as the front. “California” is the best of them because of its verses, echoing the gender subversion of “Mariners…” and mimicking Antonoff’s piano before losing its momentum with an interminable mid-tempo chorus. “…American Record” is even slower, and its lyrics are probably the weakest on the album (“All roads lead to you, like the 405 I drive through”). “Bartender” is an intriguing look at Del Rey’s struggles with fame and stalkers, but her stuttering repetition of “bar-t-t-tender” during the songs closing minutes is grating and nearly ruins the song.
Throughout, Norman Fucking Rockwell
is so apolitical that its lack of politics almost swings back around toward making a social statement by accident. This is music for and about the idle rich, full of lyrics about shiftless days spent dancing, fu
cking, and getting high in Los Angeles. When she writes about love, there is always a beautiful longing, always a desire to do something to someone or have something done to her (desires that often seem to go unfulfilled). She is easy to relate to in those moments, but as the album continues past sixty minutes, the emptiness at the heart of the album becomes apparent. The world presented here is so insular as to be nearly impenetrable: a life lived in a bathing suit during the day and a party dress at night. Dancing and diamonds are omnipresent, but so is a sadness exemplifying everything missing from a life that’s had any kind of meaning scooped out and replaced with something worse than nostalgia, with a need
for a nostalgia that never quite comes because the past was never fulfilling. Del Rey doesn’t open a window into her life or identity, choosing instead to make tiny incisions where the bone is already close to the skin. Her willingness to repeat phrases and ideas feels less thematic than lazy, especially on an album as long as NFR
Still, this is her best album yet, and great moments abound amidst the fat. The piano coda of “The Greatest”, the tender and gorgeously sung “Love Song”, the abandon of “Fu
ck It, I Love You” are just a few. And closer “Hope is a Dangerous Thing…” even has something of Leonard Cohen about it, a stark piano ballad dominated by her voice and her inimitable phrasings – “tearing around in my fu
cking night gown,” “serving up God in a burnt coffee pot,” “she never cared less, and I never cared more, so there’s no more to say about that.” It’s the only song on the album that finally peeks past the curtain of idealized Americana and catches a glimpse of a hungry and formless void, swallowing love and dancing and drugs but never filling up.