Review Summary: Californians always think of sex / Or think of death / Five hundred girl deaths / A Mexico revenge, it's stolen land / They really get it off on / "Don't hurt me please"
na del Rey’s latest record is actually her longest to date? At a whopping 77 minutes over 16 songs, it promises ambition, substance, sensation and as many meticulously recorded piano accompaniments as you can poke your fork at.
Did you know that it’s a giant critical faux pas to introduce records by a feature as banal as the material fact of their runtime? As far as unimaginative and typically uninsightful framing devices go, this is rivalled only by prompting the reader to examine the album artwork, and by immediately foregrounding the artist’s geographical particularities. Lana del Rey lives in California, and you may be aware that she would never in a million years have generated remotely the same level of commercial or critical capital by obsessing so openly about anywhere else.
Did you know that this latest Lana del Rey record does contain some measure of robust and moving songwriting about topics other than sex, death and California? “Kintsugi” is murky nothingness on first inspection, but the track’s bones support a stirring testimonial of weathering family tragedy and coming out stronger for it. The tragedy in question here may be, well, death, but its tone is decidedly franker than that of ye olde sex-death-California trifecta, and more in line with that of her 2021 outing Blue Bannisters
. By del Rey’s standards, that record dropped the mesh-mask in favour of a frank lyrical style and eschewed the stifling levels of polish inflicted on past outings by Jack Antonoff's production.
Did you know that Antonoff is not only back behind the desk for this one, but now also on mic duties? He contributes a verse to the late game track “Margaret”, manifesting the full metatextual force of every sycophantic remark he’s ever made about del Rey in thirty hysterical seconds of narcotic play-acting so unintelligibly belaboured that one can’t help but feel embarrassed for the man.
Did you know that the remaining features are frittered between such indulgent misfires as “Peppers” and the already infamous “Judah Smith Interlude”, or else wasted on songs as hopelessly banal as “Candy Necklace” and “Let The Light In”? These directly evoke the single most frustrating part of del Rey’s whole oeuvre: that the most fascinatingly incongruous aspects of her image and personality have so rarely found root in musical form. “Born to Die”’s panoramic hip-hop, “West Coast”’s lopsided rock brimstone and “Dealer”’s dissociated cabaret meltdown are the boldest and best of her classics because they get this so perfectly right - even “Video Games” had a lick of the ridiculous in the heaven-or-hell stakes it superimposed on the dreary eponymous obstacle between narrator and her significant other. Single “A&W” is exemplary to this end, its icicle refrain and queasy trap coda every bit as unnerving as its lyrical descent from childhood purity into lysergic mania and degrading sexual compulsion. There are numerous points here where del Rey practically dares the listener to look away, rewarding them at every turn for hearing her out with sordid pop thrills equal parts sickening and vitalising.
Did you know that the audacity of this song ripples like an earthquake through the rest of the record? “A&W” shows up every dreary retread of del Rey’s circuitous writing tropes (title-track), levels every deference to the cliches of suburban ennui (“I take off all my clothes, dance naked for the neighbours”), and compromises every vapid attempt at fan service (the “Venice Bitch” reprise that closes the record is an unwelcome reminder of the self-inflated tepidity that festooned its parent album Norman ***ing Rockwell
). Secondary highlights “Paris, Texas” and “Kintsugi” disappear into the background; otherwise cogent hip-hop flirtations turn into innocuous daliances (“Fishtail”); the middle of the road becomes the most desolate of wasted spaces (“Fingertips”). All to what end? Exactly what magnitude of wasted potential are we talking about here?
Well, did you know that La