Lana Del Rey has solidified her position as one of today’s most iconic artists, and right now, she’s got everything to smile about.
Lust for Life marks the culmination of the past five years she’s spent on her brand of lugubrious dream pop.
Ultraviolence had been something of a grower, with it’s melancholy sometimes more sleep-inducing than inspiring. And Honeymoon was a step in the right direction, towards more familiar ground, yet nonetheless steeped in plodding self-indulgence and glacial tempos. I did come to appreciate the strengths of those albums, but given my tastes I couldn’t help but be bored. I longed for something with the attitude and vitality of Born to Die, and while the textures were still there, the songs themselves were more of an afterthought – secondary to the aesthetic.
So Lust for Life does something surprising. It distils all those Lana Del Rey tropes into something lively and triumphant. It boasts her strongest vocals, and the songs and melodies themselves are some of the most robust they’ve been in years. Her retro style always teetered on the edge of caricature – of the glamorous and morose young woman preoccupied with the equally glamorous yet sordid world of 1960s Hollywood. It was a time where people kept up appearances, were desperately unhappy, and revelled in appallingly chauvinistic attitudes.
Critics had always accused of her exalting these less progressive attitudes in her image (namely with Ultraviolence’s title track, which is basically an ode to domestic violence, and accusations that she’s an antifeminist), but to me that always came off as a curiously simplistic reading. I feel that she always knew what she was doing, and her celebration of this particular era was always part and parcel with all the fucked up, patriarchal stuff that came with it. Just because she made it look so damn appealing, doesn’t mean it actually was.
The “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” claim that underpinned her sound has finally gone from a vague promise into a full-fledged exploration. The title track features a collaboration from The Weeknd, although that’s less ‘Starboy’ and more vintage Lana Del Rey – just more playful and exuberant than we’ve come to expect from her. The real meat comes in the form of A$AP Rocky collaborations ‘Summer Bummer’ and ‘Groupie Love’ that mark her first true ventures into straight up hip hop. Along with Rocky’s verses, they feature the skittering hi hats and low end trap kicks you’d expect to hear in the current crop of hip hop, yet Del Rey’s disaffected croon and woozy soundscapes nevertheless keep the tracks comfortably within her wheelhouse.
The predictable decadence that had dominated her previous two efforts is finally offset by a far more textured, layered production palette, giving the tracks a far punchier edge whilst doing little to diminish her trademark sound. ’13 Beaches’ features the glossy trip hop beats and moody string and piano accompaniments, yet when the arpeggio synths come over the top of the chorus, it feels as if her sound is starting to transition into something new – not just in terms of instrumentation or its more robust hooks, but the depth and maturity of its subject matter. Offering up commentary on her experiences with the paparazzi through the lens of a failed relationship, ’13 Beaches’ is an early highlight. More importantly, it marks the first time in which the shadowy grandeur underpinning her work actually feels earned, bolstered by a soaring vocal performance.
‘Love’ is essentially an upbeat retooling of ‘Young and Beautiful‘, and is a jarringly optimistic and straightforward song about… well, love. And ‘Cherry’ has the makings of an old fashioned torch song, until the chorus kicks in, bringing home the kind of swagger and menace that keeps it in line with the rest of her creative oeuvre. Songs like ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’ play up the vaguely philosophical and subversive angle she’s only toyed with in the past, tinged with a smattering of political commentary on the recent situation in North Korea.
It’s all what helps them sound more like songs, and less like superficially adorned sonic canvasses. For the first real time in her career, these are songs that are invested with believable emotion and vulnerability, having pared down the usual melodramatic showboating that overshadowed any prior attempts at sincerity.
Sometimes artists must be willing to experiment often and to fail often in order to find their voice. Sometimes it takes them in completely unexpected directions. Sometimes it reminds them that their immediate instincts were right all along. I had always greatly enjoyed Born to Die, but it was hard not to echo the critiques of its repetitiveness and relentless melodrama. But there was without a doubt something truly unique buried beneath that. So it was with some disappointment that I regarded her latter efforts, finding that she had become more fixated on maintaining an aesthetic than writing songs. Her proclivities for crafting lush soundscapes had always felt oddly curtailed, but here, it’s finally blossomed – energised and revitalised thanks to some inspired songwriting.
Lana Del Rey, despite her imperfections as a performer, was always blessed with a crystal clear vision of what kind of artist she wanted to be. With Lust for Life, she throws away any compunction or reservation in creating the sort of music she’s always wanted to make. It could be considered a flaw that her songs were a pastiche of an era she’s always felt more comfortable with, but it seems now that she’s finally thrown caution to the wind, diving headlong into that period – Tomorrow Never Came is a folk rock track that could’ve come straight out of Woodstock, complete with Sean Ono Lennon doing his best impression of his old man.
Whether this was a deliberate choice, or Del Rey simply growing into her artistry, I’m not sure. She confidently fuses the psychedelic guitar work of Ultraviolence and orchestral arrangements of Honeymoon, and despite how disparate it might all seem on paper, it’s remarkably cohesive. Paradoxically, it seems the once stale dependence on booming trip hop beats and languid strings from the Born to Die days are what now serve to unify her sound, and it really works here – musically it feels as if she’s finally come into her own. You can’t argue that Lana Del Rey has never tried to be anyone else but herself – yet her whole retro 60s sound always came off as a little too much of a novelty, and at worse, an affectation.
But sometimes you need to push for what you want and what you believe in until you’re finally where you need to be. And that perseverance has paid off. With Lust for Life, she has poised herself as one of the most authentic and unique artists around today – and it’s a dazzling thing to behold.
Based in: New York, US.
Sounds like: Nobody else but her. She’s earned it.
Say what? She recently attempted to use witchcraft against Donald Trump.
Over and out, Darren.