Lana Del Rey is diamonds. She’s gorgeous faux-furs and she is bearskin rugs. She’s chandeliers, and silk dresses, and martinis with a twist. She’s tying a cherry stem in a knot with only your tongue, and she is, obviously, calling an older man “Daddy”. In this way, she’s a cliché, sure, but aren’t clichés only clichés because they’re so irresistible?
In recent years, Lana Del Rey has become other things too. These days she’s as much campfires and kaftans and flower garlands and living off the land as she is Cartier bracelets. She’s Graceland, and Rumours, and old, beat-up record players, and she’s smoking weed on a starless night.
Lana Del Rey is each of these things at once, and we know this from her instantly recognisable sound and the words she fits to it. Thrillingly, it all comes together, positively harmonious, on her two new singles “Mariners Apartment Complex” and “Venice Bitch” – meandering, folk-adjacent songs, which will appear on her 2019 record Norman Fucking Rockwell.
There’s nobody in music who evokes images and moods like Lana. She is an icon in the actual sense of the word, the very sight of her dripping with stories, dripping with America. Her musical proclivities have unfolded in real time like the life story of an actress or heiress who once embraced the allure of fame before eventually becoming a hippy and moving to a farm. Around 2011, she emerged in our collective consciousness as a glamour-obsessed starlet on her self-titled major label debut (think of the lyrics to "Off to the Races": “White bikini off with my red nail polish / Watch me in the swimming pool / Bright blue ripples, you / Sitting sipping on your Black Cristal”). Her music was immediately lush and strikingly imagistic, conjuring a feeling of opulent to-be-looked-at-ness, and saw her putting herself – “Young and Beautiful” – in the eyelines of powerful, older men.
As she’s evolved, she has moved through various lanes of American imagery – from the sad, Chateau Marmont splendour of her early work, into an earthier, folkier place, more Woodstock than Hollywood. She was pictured on the front of her last album, 2017’s Lust for Life, smiling wide with daisies in her hair. Her move into this different aesthetic territory accompanied a dulling of her interest in domineering male figures – while her lyrical bread and butter is, happily, still relationships, she now looks inwards a little more often than she writes herself from someone else’s point of view (“Who's doper than this bitch? Who's freer than me? / You wanna make the switch? Be my guest, baby,” she sneers, sorrowful but self-possessed, on Lust for Life’s “In My Feelings”).
Both perspectives make for fascinating lyrical studies, as Del Rey has proved herself many times as a songwriter, though it’s especially fun to see her eyebrow raised in the general direction of men. On Tuesday, she announced that her next record will be titled Norman Fucking Rockwell, in affectionately mocking honour of all of the self-involved male artists who’ve crossed her path over the years. “The title track is called “Norman Fucking Rockwell” and it's kind of about this guy who is such a genius artist but he thinks he’s the shit and he knows it and he like, won't shut up talking about it,” she told Zane Lowe on Beats 1, on the show to launch “Venice Bitch,” her second new single this year. “So often I ended up with these creative types or not or whatever and you know they just go on and on about themselves and I'm like yeah, yeah. But there’s a little bit of merit to it also. They are so good. I just like the title track so much that I was like OK, I definitely want the record to also be called that.”
She puts the sense of humour in the title down to producer Jack Antonoff, who has been at the helm of both “Mariners Apartment Complex” and “Venice Bitch,” and seems to have worked on all of Norman Fucking Rockwell. Antonoff is one of the most talented producers working in pop music at the minute, though having produced high-profile records by Lorde, Taylor Swift, and St. Vincent over the last couple of years, he’s been accused of heavy-handedness with his own bombastic New Jersey sound, with some arguing that it appeared too prominently on those artists’ albums.
I don’t think that’s true (many well-known producers have a signature: think of the identifiability of Dev Hynes or Pharrell), but even if it were, it’s testament to the strength of Lana Del Rey’s own mood and aesthetic that Antonoff appears firmly in a supporting role only, his textural expertise bending to her fully realised vision like a flower in the sun. “Venice Bitch” in particular – at almost ten minutes long – feels like a complete distillation of everything we’ve come to love about Del Rey. Its lyrics are firmly rooted in the American imagery she’s beloved for (“I dream in jeans and leather”), and the song’s hook – ”Oh God, miss you on my lips / It’s me, your little Venice Bitch” – seems nostalgic somehow, like she’s not the sweet girl in the swimsuit anymore, but certainly was once. The feels like an encapsulation of all of the romance we associate with her, and has a distinct sense of the passage of time, capturing her where she is now.
On a number of levels, the song recalls the simplicity of Paul Simon, who is a big influence on Antonoff (of Simon, he told me last year: “He's a big influence, that was playing a lot growing up. I love how he just says what happened. He's not overly poetic, he's just like, "this street, at this time of day, you were wearing that," you know?”). It’s a perfect fit for Del Rey, who seems to be pursuing quintessential, simple guitar sounds on the Norman Fucking Rockwell songs so far. And it makes sense that she would. Like Simon and Springsteen and Young, Lana Del Rey is an American artist foremost, and it’s drawing on influences like those – people whose music feels in a sense timeless – that Del Rey will likely make her best record in years.
By now, she has utterly honed her unmatched skill at perfecting a picture in a few words, and by using this ability to look back on her evolution as an artist, as she does on “Mariners Apartment Complex” and “Venice Bitch,” she’s crafted magic. Norman Fucking Rockwell seems like it’ll see Del Rey at the height of her powers – totally to grips with her aesthetic, inhabiting an enduring musical style – and feels so far like it has all the ingredients of a classic. Takes one to make one, after all.
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