Lana Del Rey is one of those pop stars whose career has been deeply founded in her image. Since ‘Born to Die’ introduced us to the Californian singer’s confident reincarnation that propelled her to the top, that image has not only been admirably consistent but has become both polarizing and instantly recognizable. You’re probably holding that mental picture already: the retro sensibility, the nostalgia-fuelled, melancholy chamber pop and contemporary R&B with a fresh hint of hip hop, the gloomy, breathy voice. Cars, bad boys, sad girls, video games, flowers, beaches. Summers on the West Coast. Her persona has earned her everything from devout adoration by a generation that finds her relatable to thorough comparisons to Morrissey but also strong criticism. The same can be said about her music. Whether ‘Lust for Life’ changes things up is a complicated question.
On ‘Love’, the single that opens up the album, Lana sings “Look at you kids with your vintage music” and “you’re part of the past, but now you’re part of the future”. Not only does the song present a critique of modern youth culture, but it also hints at Lana looking at herself, with the kind of self-aware irony that can lead to self-acceptance. But she rarely expresses or develops a mature, conscious perspective on her own progression as an artist anywhere else on the record, unless you count the references to her own songs (“It’s more than just a video game,” she sings on ‘Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems’). And when it seems like she does, it’s done with the vagueness that barely scratches the surface (“My celluloid scenes are ripped at the seams,” she declares on ‘Cherry’). Not that lack of self-criticism is necessarily a bad thing, but in fact, the singer seems constantly unsure of what direction the album should go into. The Trump presidency has made Lana, who has expressed both her love of Americana and her romantic idea of America, feel compelled to zoom out and touch upon grander themes like war and peace, more confused and than actually conflicted. Meanwhile, as an artist who has avoided embracing feminism to just focus on her own story, she now feels the need, if not to make an anthem of empowerment, to at least show her empathy to the women in the world. But the results on tracks like ‘God Bless America – And All the Beautiful Women in It’, ‘When the World Was at War We Just Kept Dancing’ and ‘Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems’ are, lyrically, corny and uninventive at their best and simply repetitive at their worst. More often than not, though, Lana seems more comfortable getting personal but resorts to recycling the same old tropes of nostalgia and melancholy, mostly in the form of references – plenty, in fact, and quite unsubtle and expected – to everything from Woodstock, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Nancy Sinatra, and Charles Manson, or else lines you’ll swear you’ve heard in one of her records before. On ‘In My Feelings’ her voice fails to reach the emotional potency the track obviously needs, while on ‘Lust for Life’ her lack of chemistry with The Weeknd sucks any kind of passion or sexiness out of the song; not to mention the imagery on predictable tracks like ‘Cherry’ or ‘White Mustang’ that evoke Lolita-esque motifs of submission and innocence that were so questionable on ‘Born to Die‘. There is, however, a moment on ‘In My Feelings’ where she asserts herself and calls the other person out for being quite simply a loser.
The uncertainty that defines the album lies in the music, too, as Lana’s attempt to push her sound forward comes off as messy. The flavorless trap beats don’t contribute anything to songs like ‘Groupie Love’ or ‘Summer Bummer’ featuring A$AP Rocky and Playboy Carti, the latter of which sounds like the obligatory woozy summer track in the vein of ‘Summertime Sadness’ and ‘High By the Beach’. What’s more striking, though, is that Lana’s confident choice to at times strip her sound down highlights the bland nature of these songs. Without the extravagant, rich strings that were present on ‘Ultraviolence’, the pleasant melodies on the hits off ‘Born to Die’, or the hints of experimentation on tracks like ‘Art Deco’ and ‘Salvatore’ off ‘Honeymoon’, the album has few things at its core to rely on. When she invites Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon to sing on a couple of tracks, which sounds more like a fulfillment of nostalgia-filled dreams than a conscious artistic choice, the sudden change in quality, at least vocally, is instantly apparent. And if the line “critics can be so mean sometimes” on ‘Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind’ puts me and anyone else who thinks Lana Del Rey can do so much more at a difficult place, it should be noted that the album offers a handful of surprisingly solid tracks towards the end of the tracklisting, even if it’s too little, too late: ‘Heroin’ is an honest, vulnerable song about battling addiction with a hook that’s actually memorable, while ‘Change’ is a heartfelt piano ballad that demonstrates how evocative the singer can get. Lana’s music has the potential to capture a mood-heavy hopelessness that stems from real emotions or else to move on to something more hopeful, but unfortunately, here it lacks the impact or focus to truly make it work. Her approach has often been coined as style-over-substance, but her latest, lifeless record seems to lack both.
‘Lust for Life’ is out now via Interscope Records. The full track-listing is as follows…
2. Lust for Life (feat. The Weeknd)
3. 13 Beaches
5. White Mustang
6. Summer Bummer (feat. A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti)
7. Groupie Love (feat. A$AP Rocky)
8. In My Feelings
9. Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind
10. God Bless America – And All Beautiful Women In It
11. When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing
12. Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems (feat. Stevie Nicks)
13. Tomorrow Never Came (feat. Sean Lennon)
16. Get Free