Originally published Jan. 9, 2012 on Intersections.
I’m sort of confused by Lana Del Rey. Some people tell me she’s an old-Hollywood throwback with the glamorous looks and sultry chanteuse voice to match. Some people tell me she’s a poser, a rich boarding school girl hiding a lack of substance behind her all-American pinup persona. She calls herself a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”–whatever that’s supposed to mean–and cites Elvis and Britney Spears as influences (what?). Either way, her debut album, Born to Die, is coming out January 30, so get ready to hear a lot about her and her lips.
Ms. Del Rey has got some image questions to answer, but her voice is also a major source of confusion. Her mournful purr works beautifully on “Video Games”, a piece of glamorous, piano-driven art-pop sung mostly in her lower register that might’ve been a B-side on an early, moodier Adele release, and “Blue Jeans”, which is a lot like the former but less sad. (The video for “Video Games”, by the way, is a nice retro piece of Instagram contemplation that works nicely for the sadness in the song.)
Her voice doesn’t work quite as well on “Born to Die”, which flounders when she tries to shift into a breathless, pitchy, almost petulant whisper. A quick viewing of some live performances confirmed my suspicions–Ms. Del Rey has plenty of syrupy, throaty sultriness, but can’t belt or wail the way some of her contemporaries can, and her breathy higher-register voice lacks the body that works so well for Lykke Li. I’m not sure I can fully embrace it.
Her up-tempo stuff is even more bewildering; what is “tell me I’m your national anthem” supposed to mean? And is the girl who breathes, Britney-like, all over “National Anthem” the same one who digs deep on “Video Games”? “Off to the Races” starts promisingly, with soul and swagger, but by the chorus she’s gone all Gwen Stefani on me and I’m not sure what’s happened.
Either way, now that we’re officially in the leadup to Born to Die‘s release, tracks from the album are leaking left and right. Go forth and decide for yourself who and what Lana Del Rey is–I’m not sure she quite knows herself.