When Lana Del Rey emerged last year with ‘Video Games’, looking and sounding like a 1960s singer – one critic called her ‘a self-styled gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ – it was as though out of nowhere. It must have been the illusion of her beautiful song; the melancholic church chimes, tender trickles of harp, the looming, grey-cloud strings and that spellbinding voice as deep and low as the Southern states – the voice of an upstate New Yorker, no less. Sonically, ‘Video Games’ has a rare visual quality; at once ethereal and natural, its atmosphere suggests an American pastoral scene, as gorgeously depressing as a still from Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven: a poised prairie daydream, rain coming down on a mansard roof, blankets of corn fields tussled by the wind. Lyrically, the song is more like a poem: ‘swinging in the backyard, pull up in your fast car, whistling my name’, ‘kissing in the blue dark, playing pool and wild darts, video games’, ‘holds me in his big arms, drunk and I am seeing stars, this is all I think of, playing video games’. There’s a weight to these words, sung charmingly deadpan and dreary. While Del Rey’s thin cry on ‘it’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you’, for example, rings out with a dull energy, the simplicity with which these high emotions are delivered makes them sound like they come from both a very real and heavenly place. Show me an unmoved listener.
‘Video Games’ was a smart second start for Lana Del Rey, who did not appear out of nowhere or from the 1960s but rather, as a readymade retro reinvention, most probably not ‘self-styled’; instead, a strategic spin-off of her former artistic failures. Del Rey has previously recorded as Lizzy Grant, her birth name, with the curious moniker of Sparkle Jump Rope Queen and as frontwoman of a band, Lizzy Grant and the Phenomena. In her fleeting reinventions, Del Rey’s a little like a hippy Holly Golightly, changing her name to change her luck. As Paul Varjak struggles with Holly in the film, we too struggle with Del Rey as it’s difficult to glean a sense of who she is from her debut, Born To Die. The most revealing song on the album is ‘Radio’, where Del Rey humbly brags, ‘No one even knows what life was like,/ Now I’m in LA and it’s paradise’ – as though anywhere but the glamour of LA means poverty. It’s a comeback kid song, but what has she comeback from exactly? ‘Baby love me ’cause I'm playing on the radio (How do you like me now?)’, she boasts. Quite frankly, because Del Rey doesn’t sing about the source of her pain, her moaning rings a little it’s-a-hard-knock-life and whiney. Above all, fame appears to be her key ambition, as though it doesn’t matter what the music sounds like so long as it makes the radio; this is all she needs to say ‘How do you like me now?’ to her haters. ‘American dream came true somehow’, she sings and means these words most; Del Rey is an incorrigible patriot.
But it’s ‘National Anthem’ that poses a real experiment in patriotism with a call for ‘red, white, blues in the sky’. The song starts off accordingly, with a string symphony and the crackle of Fourth of July fireworks but then takes a wonderful turn for the edgier, with a syncopated, nonsensical rap. ‘I’m your national anthem, boy put your hands up, give me a standing ovati-on’, she half-sings, half-raps. Again, the song doesn’t seem to reveal much, except ‘I need somebody to hold me’. Though it does little to establish an identity for the ever-enigmatic Lana Del Rey, what Born To Die lacks in depth it makes up for in pretty, moody pop and playful melodies.
‘Diet Mountain Dew’, the album’s best near up-tempo song, is a fine example of such playful pop. Like its singer, ‘Diet….’ is a major revamp of an earlier version. In its original format, the song is slower, flatter, jazzier and not half as R&B as this new, audibly generated album version. Kitted out with a baseline and a faux hip hop style undercurrent, the new ‘Diet...’ – slicker, faster and marginally better – sounds as though attempting modern and therefore comes off a little out of step. In many ways, the song, meant to conjure a ‘New York heaven’, resembles the city; an audibly busy and crowded conurbation, its neighbourhoods of sound each playing to their own rhythm, the different beats of the city represented by the varied tempo of the song, the repetition of ‘you’re no good for me, baby’ as frequent as the sighting of another yellow taxi. ‘Diet…’ is a mini melting pot; the opening ‘hey, hey, hey’, the throbbing drum, the guitar riff with the Western twinge, the tinkling jazz bar piano and the sluice of baseline that cuts in towards the end. My one quibble with ‘Diet…’ is the hip hop sample (the aforementioned ‘hey, hey, hey’) which sounds rather messy and must have been thrown in for no other purpose than to support the singer’s claim of growing up on hip hop in ‘Blue Jeans’. OK, Lana, we believe you. In the song’s slower seconds, where it’s just a tinkling piano and Del Rey, a little quivery on the high notes and in her vocal element downtown (as she sings elsewhere, ‘take that body downtown’) the song is spectacular. In these more intimate moments, you can almost hear the sparkle and fade of the city lights, as though looking down on them atop the Empire State Building. It’s here that something magical – something nearer to the magic of ‘Video Games’, at least – happens, proving that it doesn’t have to be sadcore to be sensational. Albeit a tad too digitally primed and prodded, ‘Diet…’ is the closest thing to blithe on Born To Die, where it sits near halfway breaking up its self-indulgent sadness. The pulpy pop of ‘Diet…’ is like the little busy city of Manhattan, a wonderfully chaotic island unto itself.
Like her hometown New York and ‘Diet Mountain Dew’, Lana Del Rey is a bit of an island herself. As she sings on ‘Radio’, ‘now my life is sweet like cinammon, like a fucking dream I’m living in’ – and, in many ways, Del Rey lives the dream. In her alt-pop retro-wonderland dream, the colours of her American dream turned ‘’Dark Paradise’ are deep red, white and Levi denim blue. From this remote haven, she stands much like the Statue of Liberty, attracting a lot of attention whilst remaining always out of touch; we just cannot relate to her and it is her devout seriousness that keeps us at bay. In theory, an album’s title track is a designated indicator of its singer’s belief system. But where more ebullient, celebratory artists like Lady Gaga have ‘Born This Way’, Lana Del Rey has ‘Born To Die’, a title that, in just three short words, swiftly dismantles any hopes and dreams, prospect of future. For Del Rey, where we end is where we begin and the name of her debut, and perhaps its circulatory success and criticism, reflects that. Recording Born To Die, it seems Lana Del Rey forgot her own advice: ‘Don't make me sad, don't make me cry,/ Sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough,/ I don't know why,/ Keep making me laugh,/ Let's go get high,/ The road is long, we carry on,/ Try to have fun in the meantime’. Since death is our only certainty, as Del Rey is set on reminding us, why the need to kill us slowly with ‘Carmen’ a song that sounds like it’s in the process of dying itself – along with Del Rey’s slurred voice droning, ‘I’m dying, I’m dying’. A cough wouldn’t go amiss here.
Ironically, the last two songs on Born To Die, “Summertime Sadness” and “This Is What Makes Us Girls” are the most reckless. It’s as though Del Rey had a last-minute, pre-death revelation: oh, and before I go, let’s have some fun. Or something like it. The fnal songs are unadulterated girly pop – more ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’; less ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’. ‘Summertime Sadness’ is my favourite, the type of getting ready song without which no pop album is truly complete. When Del Rey sings, ‘I’m feeling e-lec-tric tonight’, I’m putting on my lipstick and by the time she’s sung ‘got my hair up real big beauty queen style’, sure enough, the ghds are on and so on. ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls’ is a cheeky, Lolita-esque trip down memory lane where Lana Del Rey lets us in on a little secret she’s been hiding: a sense of humour, as she reminisces about ‘skippin’ school and drinkin’ on the job (with the boss)’ and ‘runnin’ from the cops, in our black bikini tops, screaming, “Get us while we're hot, get us while we're hot”’. This is more the kind of music I’d like to hear from Lana Del Rey. No doubt she was at her best with ‘Video Games’, but serious isn’t always her strong-suit and ballad-heavy Born To Die proves that. Del Rey is at her best when she lets us in, either letting her hair down as she did in ‘Diet Mountain Dew’ and her girlier tracks, ‘Summertime Sadness’ and ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls’, or when being romantic as in ‘Video Games’ and ‘Blue Jeans’ –and, above all, when she’s not depressive. There are rumours that Del Rey will re-release an album she recorded originally in 2010, this summer:the aptly-titled, Lana Del Rey A.K.A. Lizzy Grant. The record could be a second lease of life for Del Rey. For her sake, I hope it is released and that it fills the void created by Born To Die. I really want to love Lana Del Rey; I just don’t want to have to try so hard.