Originally posted January 27, 2012 on Intersections.
tl;dr: Gorgeous baroque production attempts to lift lifeless vocals above water; empty, thoughtless lyrics drag them back down.
Worth your time: ‘Video Games’, ‘Born to Die’, ‘This is What Makes Us Girls’ if you want a lol
Let’s set aside all the hoopla, all the hipster feelings and SNL snafus and heavy-handed jabs at plastic surgery and just take a look at Lana Del Rey as a maker of music. After the jump, my thoughts and a track-by-track review.
Honestly, it’s just not very interesting.
Amid the frenzy of previews, demos and album clips, I wrote that I was mainly confused by the juxtaposition between breathless coquette Lana and moody chanteuse Lana. It appears her producers were also befuddled and, instead of trying to make her pick, just did their best to make her sound good. The crime here is that the moody, echoey, art-pop production running full-steam in all 15 tracks demands someone who can sing, who can convey something beyond lassitude or pouty-lipped carelessness. Lana is not that girl. Through all her verses, she runs through tired, repetitive chord progressions like water, and her choruses are usually delivered in an overlaid higher-register whisperspeak that’s designed to mask her voice’s lack of body. Production can only do so much—it already works overtime to mask her very apparent flaws. That’s actually my main takeaway from Born to Die: whoever was responsible for production and arrangements deserves gold stars for trying to inject some passion or emotion into otherwise largely meaningless vocals and lyrics.
About those lyrics—there’s a series of commercials for Bing! in which the consumer of the Wikipedia generation hears a word and, instead of producing a coherent sentence or thought, begins spouting off vaguely related keywords and phrases. That’s kind of what Lana sounds like. Much of the album is catchphrases and rambling rhymes that try really hard to mean something deeper, but ultimately just don’t. It just feels like Lana just wrote some background music for her life in an effort to add some spice and dimension to an otherwise pretty placid existence. (The one notable exception to this rule is “This is What Makes Us Girls”, in which Lana actually has some sort of message, albeit one that makes me no longer want to live on this Earth). Despite the best efforts of what I’m sure was a crackerjack team of producers, composers and string players, she somehow manages to make the time-honored riffs on love, drugs and sex sound boring. How did this happen? It sounds as though she knows she should be feeling certain things and knows how to make it appear as though she’s feeling those things, but has never actually felt them and honestly doesn’t care if the listener feels them.
Maybe that’s the problem: maybe Lizzy Grant didn’t really have grand, epic, atmospheric feelings about her life, but she had a song that somehow ended up sounding deeply emotive and passionate (‘Video Games’), so she invented a new persona, Lana Del Rey, got some new lips and tried to make an album about it. This actually works against her: her chamber-pop production, smoky eyes and retro-glam image lead me to expect something deeper, but there’s really nothing much there.
Lana is, above all, bored. Nothing seems to evoke a response beyond a coquettish ooh or a lazy, repetitive chorus. She and her producers try their best at affecting world-weariness, but nothing terribly weary has happened in Lana/Lizzy’s world, and so we’re left with just that: a slick, polished, less-than-believable affect.
1. Born to Die
The video for the title track features a doomed queen sitting in an empty palace flanked by two tigers. It’s an apt image for the song, in which Lana just kind of sits there, staring blankly, pouting and thinking about the impending storm, supported by the tragedy and grandeur of a crumbling castle as expressed through cinematic string swells and spacey guitar. In a BBC Radio performance last week, she poked fun at ‘Born to Die’ as a “song to kill yourself to”—well spotted, Miss Del Rey.
Come take a walk on the wild side / let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain / you like your girls insane
2. Off to the Races
LDR is a rambling, slipping, drunken mess with daddy issues who desperately needs someone to chase her all over town before she somehow lands in a recording studio. Seriously—I feel like she got really wasted one day, stumbled in front of a microphone, starting mumbling lots of disconnected words and phrases and it accidentally got recorded. How else do you explain why the words “fire of my loins” actually ended up in a song? It’s fascinating the way a plane crashing into a train crashing into a car might be.
He doesn’t mind that I have a Las Vegas past / he doesn’t mind I have a LA crass way about me / he loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart
3. Blue Jeans
LDR falls fast for a James Dean type and gasps her way through pledging to love him until the end of time. Yawn.
4. Video Games
Another song to kill yourself to—hey, at least she’s aware. LDR tries her hardest to get her man’s attention, but he’s too busy playing video games and drinking beers. Here, her expressionless delivery actually works: it’s as though she’s actually been driven to numb weariness by giving so much and getting so little in return.
I say you the bestest, lean in for a big kiss, put his favorite perfume on / go play a video game
5. Diet Mountain Dew
LDR lives in New York City. She wants somebody. LDR lives in New York City. She wants somebody. Has none of the hypnotic restlessness of the ’90s R&B it tries to recall.
6. National Anthem
LDR tries to make some sort of sexy statement about how our nation is driven by money, or something. Mostly she just tries to make the idea of being someone’s national anthem sexual—I still don’t understand, but I get the feeling someone out there is going to pick this up as some sort of hipster Americana rallying cry.
7. Dark Paradise
LDR somehow makes being tortured by love sound really, really boring. I’ve never heard a person say “I wish I was dead” quite so dispassionately.
Every time I close my eyes, it’s like a dark paradise / No one compares to you / I’m scared that you / won’t be waiting on the other side
LDR refers vaguely to past pain and shows some signs of knowing how to construct some phrasing, but quickly dismisses it and returns to her trusty lazy, whispered rhymes. Cinnamon, Ritalin, vitamin…
Now my life is sweet like cinnamon / like a fucking dream on Ritalin
ETA: I’ve been informed that apparently the lyric is not, in fact, “like a fuckin dream on Ritalin”, but “like a fuckin dream I’m livin in”. But isn’t it all the more hilarious and awesome to think the word Ritalin is actually in the song? Either way, now you know.
A gorgeous cello strain is wasted on a derailed experiment of a song in which LDR whips out all the tricks—a little bit of speaking-singing, a slow burn of a chorus, a staccato “eh eh eh”—to try and evoke jealousy. It’s actually criminal that her voice was somehow laid on top of this otherwise very layered and interesting instrumental track.
10. Million Dollar Man
Bluesy melodrama actually works. Take notes, Lana: it sounds better when you sound like you actually care. Chalk this one up to the producers again.
11. Summertime Sadness
LDR almost reaches that ‘Video Games’ apogee of slow-building suffering, but before we can actually feel some summertime sadness, she strings us along a completely unnecessary hook: “I got that summertime, summertime sadness, su-su-summertime, summertime sadness” pretty much derails any actual feelings I might have felt.
12. “This is What Makes Us Girls”
Bitchy rich girl finds all of life’s essential truths in drinking “Pabst Blue Ribbon” and partying with her BFFs, regrets nothing until she gets sent to boarding school and then still kind of thinks she was just misunderstood.
I feel like Lana got really mad at her parents one day circa sophomore year of high school and wrote this song before sneaking out to drink beer out of solo cups on someone’s patio and take lots of pictures with her hand on her hip so her arm looked skinny. Then her and her friends would probably compare how little they’d eaten that day and plot ways to steal their parents’ Xanax. Also, the moment when LDR whispers “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice” might be best/worst moment of this entire album. Is this a joke? Is this song a level of satire beyond me? I’d like to think there was probably a miscommunication: her producers thought she was doing her usual try-hard-to-make-a-serious-statement thing, and so applied their usual formula (strings + beats + echoey sample = feelings) when in actuality, LDR was just kidding, guys!
Also, the lyric this is what makes us girls / we don’t stick together ’cause we put love first is terrible, terrible, terrible. If this superficiality and carelessness is what defines girlhood today, I need to leave this planet.
13. Without You
Completely unremarkable except for the opening line.
Everything I want I have / money, notoriety and Rivieras / I think that I found God / in the flashes of your pretty cameras
Billboard says this one wins the “Most Annoying” prize for spelling the word “dark” over and over and over. I can do nothing but agree and press fast-forward.
Kiss me in the D-A-R-K: dark night / (D-A-R-K do it my way)
15. Lucky Ones
Starts promisingly operatic, but falls quickly into the usual traps of uninspired lyrics and lazy singing.
Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die will be available on iTunes, Amazon, etc in the US on Jan. 31.