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In F. Scott Fitzgerald's debut novel, This Side of Paradise, he writes, "I'm not sentimental—I'm as romantic as you are. The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last—the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won't." Nostalgic sentimentality—staying too focused on the past—prevents one from seeing their present. Almost an entire century after Fitzgerald wrote those words, Lana Del Rey, pop's de facto nostalgia artist, has fully emerged as a tried and true romantic on her fourth studio album, Lust For Life. Over a solemn piano on her track "Change," she sings, "There's something in the wind, I can feel it blowing in" and continuing further with, "Change is a powerful thing, people are powerful beings."
Lana Del Rey is harder to grasp as a pop artist because we often don't understand someone who prioritizes introspective thought like she does. On "In My Feelings" off her new album, we are quite literally expected to take Del Rey at face value as she sings, "I'm feeling all my fucking feelings." Del Rey has a supernatural ability of being in touch with her feelings, which is something we have seen on her prior albums and EPs in the five short years since she's sashayed onto the pop scene. Yet, what separates her earlier work from her latest, Lust For Life, is that Del Rey is less sentimental; less apt to wallow in the past and be afraid of change. Though she still pays tribute to the past through her influences on this record, Del Rey falls in love with the present and looks to the future.
On "Get Free," Del Rey sings over motown shoop-shoop beats, "Finally/ Gone is the burden/ Of the crowding way of being/ That comes from energies combined," and sounds more like a person beginning to untangle, someone unshackled and less concerned with mining her past and staying there. With the bright and auspicious track "Love," which features grandiose instrumentals, there is another marker of Del Rey less burdened. She is far readier to pass on what she has learned about love ("I know, it's enough just to make you go crazy, crazy, crazy") to being more nonchalant and of the moment ("Don't worry, baby") than to wallow. She's not impressed with a dumb ex and ready to drag them, not pine for them, on "Cherry," managing to utter "bitch" more impressively than anyone in the history of pop.
Del Rey still pays homage to what made her and who continues to inspire: Bob Dylan on "Tomorrow Never Came" with "Lay, Lady, lay on that side of a paradise"; "flying to the moon" a la Frank Sinatra on "Heroin"; and Patsy Cline on "Cherry" with the lyrics, "I fall to pieces when I'm with you, I fall to pieces." But she brings in a new voice like Playboi Carti who, potentially, is relatively still unknown to the greater public—especially to her audience. By including the "Magnolia" rapper's adlibs on "Summer Bummer," along with A$AP Rocky, she continues her dalliance with rap from Born To Die and plays with our expectations of her.
Throughout the album, she presents us with her urgent, socially aware view about the world, which is another indicator of a less self-focused pivot. The fact that America is no longer—in her eyes—as great as it once was is apparent. America has changed. She sees it on "Coachella-Woodstock" and "When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing" when Del Rey poses the questions: "Is it the end of America?/Is it the end of an era?" In an interview last week with Pitchfork, Del Rey even said she'd consider not using the American flag visuals so synonymous with her live shows because it just doesn't seem appropriate now. Her awakening regarding America's thorny and defiant place in the world, though, is not really the most interesting revelation on Lust For Life.
One of Del Rey's strongest moments on the record is her collaboration with the original West Coast witch Stevie Nicks on "Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems." Del Rey is an iteration of Stevie Nicks for this generation; a chanteuse who can sing words so affecting over this era's musical palette, namely hip-hop and pop. On the song, Del Rey's mournful croon almost sounds like a privileged complaint. And it is! She is beautiful and in a position of privilege and power so few ever attain. Nicks anchors the track in a way that would otherwise leave it flat if Del Rey sang it alone. Her appraisals of the past on her own records and with Fleetwood Mac have been more romantic than sentimental, leaving her hungry for change. Even when Nicks sings, "my heart is soft, my path is rough," it's a matter-of-fact romance of what was (a rough journey) but she doesn't dwell and she doesn't allow Del Rey to dwell either on the track, singing "we gotta try" and "we gotta walk through fire."
This record has some spots that don't hit as effectively such as "White Mustang." This track stays too on formula, too much of the quintessential Del Rey that toys with nostalgic imagery of car as metaphor with lyrics like "You're revving and revving and revving it up/ And the sound, it was frightening/ And you were getting a part of that/ You're gonna hit me like lightning." Still, to the betterment of the record this is overshadowed by seemingly odd but in actuality true to form collaborations with producers like Boi 1da rappers on "Summer Bummer" and the go-to hitmaker Metro Boomin' produced "God Bless America - And All The Beautiful Women In It." She stretches herself on Lust For Life. Del Rey has learned that what you do introspectively does have a bigger impact externally. She takes up a position to be better in control of that on this record. Not necessarily assuming a role model position but more cognizant that actions, and lessons learned from them, do impact those in their life. That is a real marker of change and we can feel and hear that in her music.
Critics and listeners thought of Del Rey initially as bored (perhaps they still do); sometimes conflating her crooning singing style as sleepy or lazy when she was more simply melancholic. This is a dated perception. Her evolution isn't simply because she titled her this record Lust For Life or that the cover art features her smiling. Sad people smile too. One of the things that bums her out is "feeling like going backward," Del Rey had said in an interview. Lust For Life is her step, not forward and into the future, into right here and now.
Sarah MacDonald is an Assistant Editor at Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.