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Lana Del Rey – Born To Die Album Review

26 February
Author: Sam

Lana Del Rey is really facing an uphill battle regarding her debut album, Born To Die, due mainly to the fact that loads of people have already written her off as a fantastic failure or simply some undeserving hack before they even give the music a chance.

A vast majority of this chatter concerns her image or her name or her live performances.  The criticisms that I’ve seen tend to go as such: 1) “She’s too pretty and it looks like she’s had work done; she’s obviously not a serious artist, but a creation of some manager somewhere,” 2) “What kind of name is Lana Del Rey? That’s so pompous to change your name in order to create an image,” and 3) as Saturday Night Live poked fun after her performance on the show, she comes off as “stiff, distant, and weird” when she’s on stage.

I’ll just make a quick response to each of those critiques before getting to the crux of the matter.  1) Yes, Lana has the looks of an old-school barbie doll or pinup model and she’s freshly signed to a modeling contract, but look through any issue of your favorite magazine and see just how many respected artists show up in ads based on their looks (ex. Zooey Deschanel, Karen O, and Gwen Stefani).  Who really cares if an artist also capitalizes on their looks?  It’s only because Lana’s looks and image may have preceded her music during most people’s introduction to her that she is now belittled for these things. 2) Browse through your entire music collection and try not to feel like an idiot when you realize how many of them use stage names.  3) I agree that she’s not yet the smoothest operator in a live setting, but to be fair, she’s had comparatively very little practice in that realm and furthermore, her style of music calls for a certain level of detachment.

Of course, none of this really addresses what is most important and that is that absolutely none of these criticisms have anything to do with Lana Del Rey’s music!  If you don’t like her music, that’s fine.  But don’t trash it simply because something about her image gets under your skin.  Who knows, you might actually find out you like it.

Born To Die starts off with a flourish of strings and quickly layers on some hip-hop style beats and poppy synths courtesy of a host of producers including Eminem-, Kanye-, and Kid Cudi-collaborator Emile Haynie.  The music is generally poppy in a rugged sort of downbeat manner.  This isn’t sunny and bright stuff for the most part.  Lana Del Rey is kind of like the anti-Adele.  Whereas the latter is a full-on, shout-it-to-the-rafters style diva who sings about being strong and making peace with oneself after a messy relationship, Lana doesn’t do anything flashy or technical with her signing, choosing instead to keep things very much within her wheelhouse, as she takes on the guise of a purring sex kitten looking for redemption and meaning in the form of a guy.

Feminists will hate this album and its songs’ complete focus on painting a female identity that oozes sex and revolves around the woman always doting and depending on the man.  Lana clearly had Nabokov on her mind while making this record as the Lolita references come a mile a minute.  Not only does she sing about “heart-shaped sunglasses,” but that classic novel’s first words, “Light of my life, fire of my loins,” make up the chorus to “Off To The Races.”  That phrase is naturally followed by the helplessly needy and sexually charged, “Because I’m crazy baby, I need you to come here and save me / I”m your little scarlet, starlet, singin’ in the garden / Kiss me on my open mouth.”  It’s no surprise that by the end of the song, “scarlet” has been changed to “harlot.”

The intriguing thing about all this sex is that it’s never allowed to boil over.  This is a rather sad record in that most of the desire seems one sided or destined to failure or simply driven by some other motivating factor like fame and money.  Lana sings these feelings in breathy whispers, pouty seductions, and lip-sneered tough-girl snippets.  Her basic singing voice is crisp and sultry (on “Million Dollar Man” she sounds like Fiona Apple), but she takes on so many Betty Boop-style affectations that she sounds like a completely different singer at times.  Just listen to the way she tantalizingly stretches out the words “heaven’s in your eyes” on the standout track “National Anthem,” which is a theme song about securing a sugar daddy to “keep [her] safe, in his belltower hotel.”  As a total package, she really isn’t that far off from being the flesh and blood version of Jessica Rabbit.

I can’t go without mentioning “Video Games.”  That’s the song that launched this whole Lana Del Rey thing into the stratosphere and for good reason.  It is one of the most arresting tracks I’ve heard in a long, long time, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that in that song alone, Lana ushered in the blueprint for a new kind of sound – dreamy, bummed-out, distant, and washed-out pop music that makes longing feel epic but not overwrought.  I certainly hadn’t heard anything like it before.  Now, I don’t know how many albums or how long a career this style of songwriting can sustain.  But that’s inconsequential at the moment, because Lana’s created a great first album.  All the hate is misplaced, people!  Get past the preconceptions and at least give this record a chance.  Plenty still won’t like it, but I bet plenty will.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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-Sam

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