Depending on how you look at it, you could make the case that Lana Del Rey’s career was both blessed and cursed before it even began. I could fall back on one of the old tropes of “I can’t remember the last time someone had this much hype…,” but that type of stigma is pretty common these days. In the past few years alone, we’ve weathered the buzz of Kid Cudi (the next Kanye West!), James Blake (changing the way we look at music) and Nikki Minaj (the female Michael Jackson). I know that the jury is still out on all of those musicians, but I think it’s safe to say that none of them really lived up to the colossal expectations laid before them. Frankly, I don’t know who could.
Maybe it’s that sort of inevitable disappointment that creates a backlash like the one we’ve seen directed at Del Rey (actually Elizabeth Grant). I don’t need to reiterate anything here, but I’ve heard every conceivable complaint about her. After a few of her songs became reasonably popular, everyone with a keyboard sunk their teeth in about how she was a manufactured pop celebrity masquerading as an artist, how she’s a byproduct of nepotism (her father is a millionaire), how she’s sporting synthetic lips to give her a more striking appearance. You get the idea.
No one would argue that she should find herself above criticism (I wrote a pretty scathing reflection of her now infamous Saturday Night Live performance), but it seemed to me that reviews were written of her album and likely her career before even listening to it. As a result, I was pretty anxious to hear Born to Die (her much awaited album, which came out this week) for a variety of reasons. I wanted to actually hear her music and the spectator in me wanted to see the critical firestorm awaiting such a polarizing figure. Before I get to my actual assessment of the album, I would like to note that the reviews were about what I was expecting; completely inconclusive. Crowd pleasers like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly dismissed the album with overtly negative responses. Other publications, such as Slant Magazine and The Independent gave it resounding praise. Pitchfork, who has definitely established themselves as the alternative gospel, compared the album to a “fake orgasm.” I wasn’t surprised to see the reviews scattered so much. She’s difficult to categorize. She’s equal parts pop, singer/songwriter, alternative, emo, diva and a bazillion intangibles. She’s the sort of artist you just have to listen to and decide for yourself.
In the interest of brevity, I’ll try to keep this at a minimum (especially since I just said that critical reviews of this artist are useless). Lana Del Rey is not Adele. The sooner we accept that, the easier her music will be to digest. I know it’s not a common comparison, but a large chunk of those lauding the album were commenting on how she seems unemotional on every track, as if you’re not truly a female performing artist unless you belt out show stealers. If you want to listen to that, then you have come to the wrong place. I recommend walking in to any Best Buy in North America, where they have been playing Adele’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall on their televisions for three solid months. Del Rey is definitely a subdued performer. She finds emotions on a minimalistic level, which is in no way an excuse for her somewhat catatonic performance on SNL. In a song like “Video Games,” the subject of the lyrics does give you the feeling that she’s going to unleash at some point even though she never does. It doesn’t bother me so much because I think she has a good voice, but I could see how it would irk others.
The lyrics can be a little bit simplistic at times. The album doesn’t have a clearly stated concept but every single track is delivered from the point of view of a disenchanted young woman crossing from the world of innocence to the world of experience (fitting, I know). The theme is perhaps more ambitious and poetic than she can handle at this early stage of her career. As some critics have pointed out, rhyming “handsome” with “the Hamptons” doesn’t really boost your stock as a songwriter. At the same time, though, you can definitely tell that she is writing from a point of view that she knows. Even with hushed vocals, her songs never seemed disingenuous to me. In “Diet Mountain Dew,” she poses innocent questions like “Do you think we’ll be in love forever?,” likewise, declaring in “Radio,” that her “life is sweet like cinnamon/like a fucking dream [she’s] living in.” Can it feel sweet at times? Yes. Can it be incredibly annoying at other times? Oh yeah.
The bottom line for me is that the album has some legitimate heavy hitters that carry it through. If you’ve surfed the internet at all for the past couple of months, I’m sure you’ve heard “Video Games,” “Blue Jeans” and “Born to Die” by now. They’re all good songs. Really good songs. They have enough oomph to mask the weaker parts of the album in my opinion. That definitely doesn’t exonerate absolutely horrendous tracks like “National Anthem” (her talk rapping about materialism), or lame ass lyrics like “all of my friends ask me why I stay strong/ Tell em when you find true love it stays long” in an otherwise acceptable track like “Dark Paradise.”
It’s a perfectly polarizing album for an incredibly polarizing artist. It seemed almost to me that Del Rey was at war with herself in the same sense that bloggers were. For the time being, she hasn’t given us enough either way. She’s got some really catchy songs but some pretty substantial duds. But we can only listen to the good ones and ignore the bad ones before we run her out of town. She may find her footing (and maybe some new lips) yet. Just be open to liking her and disliking her at the same time and remember that just because she isn’t the next Kate Bush doesn’t mean she is the next Rebecca Black.