Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life

An­wen Craw­ford on Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE -

“Climb up the ‘H’ of the Hol­ly­wood sign,” sings Lana Del Rey on ‘Lust for Life’, the ti­tle track of her new al­bum. “In these stolen mo­ments the world is mine.” The song is a duet with R&B artist The Weeknd, but his mel­liflu­ous falsetto, when it ap­pears, lessens the drama. She’s bet­ter off alone.

Since her break­through six years ago with the sin­gle ‘Video Games’, the Amer­i­can singer and song­writer has evinced a gloomy, glam­orous fa­tal­ism that feels much more aligned with the val­ues of Clas­si­cal Hol­ly­wood than with our own time. She car­ries her­self like Lizabeth Scott, one of Hol­ly­wood’s great femmes fa­tales, who played a torch singer sev­eral times. (Too Late for Tears, Scott’s best-known noir, might as well be the ti­tle of a Lana Del Rey song.) Del Rey un­der­stands, as did David Bowie be­fore her, that pop mu­sic is as much a vis­ual as an au­dio form, and her songs, like his, of­ten seem to be fan­tasies of film acted out by an as­pir­ing lead.

There is no sud­den­ness in the move­ment of Del Rey’s mu­sic and no hurry in its pace. Her favourite tense for lyrics is the present con­tin­u­ous, a nar­ra­tor’s tense, which tells of tem­po­rary things. “Swing­ing in the back­yard / Pull up in your fast car / Whistling my name,” she sang on ‘Video Games’, and you knew – would have known, even with­out the song’s dark­en­ing string sec­tion – that she wasn’t singing of a love built to last. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing film clip, which Del Rey di­rected her­self, fea­tured the Hol­ly­wood sign, B-list stars be­hav­ing badly, and Del Rey lip-sync­ing to cam­era like a ner­vous in­genue at her first screen test.

‘Video Games’ gave the sense of a young tal­ent un­likely to sur­vive, and per­haps not want­ing to sur­vive, her en­counter with the ma­chin­ery of show­biz – or even of a ghost re­turned from some for­got­ten cul­tural arte­fact to warn us of her des­tiny. The al­bum that fol­lowed that song, re­leased in 2012, was called Born To Die. It went plat­inum world­wide. Then came Ul­travi­o­lence (2014), and Del Rey’s aes­thetic, along with her pop­u­lar­ity, ap­peared fixed.

But what about her tra­jec­tory? Was she re­ally as doomed as she seemed? Like many myth-mak­ing per­form­ers be­fore her, Del Rey had some­thing of a false start. A de­but al­bum, Lana Del Ray – note the vari­ant spell­ing – was re­leased in 2010, but quickly pulled from dis­tri­bu­tion. Her real name is El­iz­a­beth Grant. There were mut­ter­ings, as there al­ways are with women pop stars, of pow­er­ful men be­hind the scenes. Per­haps oth­ers were script­ing her part and draw­ing the ben­e­fits: cash for mis­ery.

If Del Rey’s angst was an act, then she played it to the hilt. “I wish I was dead al­ready,” she told the Guardian in 2014, a com­ment that earned her a public re­buke from Frances Bean Cobain, daugh­ter of the late Kurt Cobain. “I’ll never know my fa­ther be­cause he died young, and it be­comes a de­sir­able feat be­cause peo­ple like you think it’s ‘cool’,” Cobain tweeted. “Well, it’s fuck­ing not. Em­brace life, be­cause you only get one life.”

Cobain had a good point, but it’s worth bear­ing in mind that her fa­ther, be­cause and not in spite of his sui­cide, is treated like rock mu­sic’s own holy saint. It’s trick­ier for sad young beau­ti­ful women, who – it is as­sumed – have noth­ing to cry about, or only cry over silly things. And if Del Rey’s sad­ness was ex­ag­ger­ated, well, we all do things like that, fic­tion­al­is­ing our­selves even to our­selves. “I’d be ly­ing / If I kept hid­ing / The fact that I can’t deal,” she sings on Lust for Life’s ‘13 Beaches’, as if to re­mind her doubters that hap­pi­ness, too, can be a fake.

Yet some­thing has shifted. A few more colours have ap­peared on the hori­zon. ‘Love’, the al­bum’s open­ing bal­lad, sounds like a bene­dic­tion de­liv­ered to lis­ten­ers who, like Del Rey, in­habit a world that can feel haunted by a bet­ter past. “Look at you kids with your vin­tage mu­sic,” she croons, “Com­ing through satel­lites while cruis­ing.” Her re­verb-soaked vo­cal (Del Rey has al­ways brought Roy Or­bi­son strongly to mind) is ac­com­pa­nied by a sonorous bassline, which is shaded in turn by a touch of vi­bra­phone. And the stately mood brings other mu­si­cal prece­dents to mind: Dusty Spring­field, LaVern Baker – even Ste­vie Nicks, who also guests on this al­bum.

Del Rey freely plun­ders the whole his­tory of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar mu­sic, though for the pur­pose of pas­tiche rather than fas­tid­i­ous re-cre­ation. She glues her finds to­gether with­out much fuss­ing about anachro­nisms; part of her point is that you no­tice them. ‘Video Games’ had its lin­eage in the jazz-age torch song, but sub bass from an 808 drum ma­chine boomed through the ar­range­ment, and the string sec­tion was com­puter-gen­er­ated. Like­wise, there’s a sil­very syn­the­siser em­bed­ded in ‘Love’, and some squeak­ing, treated ef­fects that dust the song with a lit­tle dig­i­tal magic. “You’re part of the past but now you’re the fu­ture,” she con­tin­ues, in the first verse, coun­selling those kids to look in both di­rec­tions

at once. The his­tor­i­cal over­laps that Del Rey makes ob­vi­ous in her songs set them apart from the work of a thou­sand other, more strictly ret­ro­grade mu­si­cians.

A case in point is one of the strong­est tracks on Lust for Life, ‘Sum­mer Bum­mer’, which fea­tures rap­pers A$AP Rocky and Play­boi Carti. A sharp, pro­grammed beat is set against the song’s dole­ful pi­ano part, and at first the two guests can only be heard in word­less snatches, which are chopped through the mix for tex­ture. “Hip hop in the sum­mer,” mur­murs Del Rey on the cho­rus, mood­ily. “Don’t be a bum­mer, babe / Be my un­der­cover lover, babe.” It’s Ray­mond Chan­dler meets the dance floor.

After that, Lust for Life hits a rote patch. ‘Groupie Love’, which also fea­tures A$AP Rocky, is in Del Rey’s well-prac­tised self-ef­fac­ing mode (“It’s so sweet, pour­ing you a drink”), while the clum­sily ti­tled ‘Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind’ is one of her most overt but least suc­cess­ful at­tempts to yoke her vin­tage in­ter­ests to the 21st cen­tury. The Cal­i­for­nian mu­sic fes­ti­val al­ready makes stren­u­ous ef­forts to po­si­tion it­self as a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of Amer­ica’s long-gone coun­ter­cul­ture, and so Del Rey’s song (“I was at Coachella / Lean­ing on your shoul­der”) sounds more like an ad­ver­tise­ment than any­thing more thought­ful. As an er­satz ver­sion of the ’60s, the al­bum’s cover shot – Del Rey in a cream-white dress, with ar­ti­fi­cial white daisies in her cen­tre-parted hair – is much more in­ter­est­ing. The vibe is back­woods beauty queen on the run to hip­pie San Fran­cisco, but the styling is too spruce and the colours are over­sat­u­rated; it’s 1967 through an In­sta­gram fil­ter.

Del Rey smiles be­at­if­i­cally in that pho­to­graph, and there’s some odd­ity in the fact that she has leant to­wards cheer­ful­ness at this mo­ment – of all mo­ments – in Amer­ica’s his­tory. “Is it the end of Amer­ica?” she asks on ‘When the World Was at War We Kept Danc­ing’. That seems a per­ti­nent ques­tion to be ask­ing right now. But her an­swer is not what you might ex­pect, at least not from her. “If we hold on to hope / We’ll have a happy end­ing,” she sings, and she ap­pears to mean it, de­liv­er­ing the lines in her high­est, breath­i­est reg­is­ter, free of the dark ironies that of­ten shade her alto range. The prob­lem is that she sounds obliv­i­ous to the real world, even care­less of it. Like­wise, her num­ber with Ste­vie Nicks, ‘Beau­ti­ful Peo­ple Beau­ti­ful Prob­lems’, is self­ab­sorbed from its ti­tle on­wards.

The last three songs on Lust for Life are a re­turn to more over­cast ter­ri­tory, and on their ev­i­dence it seems that de­spon­dency suits Del Rey best, after all. ‘Heroin’ is haunt­ing, its ar­range­ment min­i­mal yet melo­di­ous; it is an ode to ad­dic­tion that also feels like an el­egy for those lost to it. ‘Change’, a pi­ano bal­lad, is rem­i­nis­cent of the smoky-voiced Cat Power at her sparest and most melan­choly. ‘Get Free’, the al­bum’s fi­nal track, al­ludes to and then re­futes the vaude­ville stan­dard ‘I’m Al­ways Chas­ing Rain­bows’: “Their arches are il­lu­sions,” sings Del Rey. The song ends with the sound of birds – re­mem­ber how Judy Gar­land once sang, in an­other song, of the birds that fly over the rain­bow? Dreams re­ally do come true, she told us, and that sen­ti­ment be­came part of Gar­land’s tragedy, be­cause the dream fac­tory broke her. At least the Hol­ly­wood sign ex­ists. Might as well cling to it.

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