Beyond the hype, a stunning debut
It speaks volumes about the fuss surrounding Lana Del Rey’s recent [i]Saturday Night Live[/i] performance that, after the show, even Harry Potter’s fabled magic wand could do nothing to stem the flow of unkind words directed her way. In the same week that Mark Wahlberg claimed he would have stopped 9/11 if he’d been on board one of the planes that crashed, the self-described ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ caught hell from half the internet and sundry ’slebs of dubious import for her shaky performance of ‘Video Games’, before compère Daniel Radcliffe rushed to her defence. Amazingly, we’re still not sure which story got most publicity.
Then again, it’s tempting to wonder if Del Rey doesn’t relish the critics’ barbs on some level. Looking back on the controversies that followed ‘Video Games’’ runaway success last year – big lips, career false starts, et al, ad nauseam – they begin to resemble not so much a case for the prosecution as they do a vindication of her ‘Hollywood sadcore’ shtick. Fame and romantic love are the dominant narratives sold to us by modern culture, and who better to call it than this freakishly beautiful, David Lynch-addicted, 25-year-old millionaire’s daughter?
Who indeed. And ‘Born To Die’ certainly isn’t shy out of the traps, gliding in with the title track’s big-budget remodelling of the LDR template. Strings usher us mournfully into the palace of Del Rey’s sadness, her voice curling like art deco smoke-plumes – “[i]sometimes love is not enough[/i],” she sighs. The slightly unhinged-sounding ‘Off To The Races’, meanwhile, swaps the tattooed Romeo of the former track’s vid for a coke-snorting sugar daddy, revelling in the amoral pleasures of being a kept woman with no questions asked.
Next up it’s the ‘Blue Jeans’/‘Video Games’ double whammy. The former’s lush Chris Isaak shades shimmer like sea-spume on Helena Christensen’s naked thighs as Del Rey longs for her James Dean. And the latter has lost none of its uncanny power, those lilting piano chords suggesting the perfect hopelessness of a cherished old photograph. She follows that with ‘Diet Mountain Dew’, a breathless, mid-tempo R&B number. Next, ‘Born To Die’ comes a cropper with ‘National Anthem’, a co-write with former [i]Fame Academy[/i] winner David Sneddon, which features some unfortunate quasi-rapping and addresses the record’s themes in a way that’s all fingers and thumbs compared to ‘Video Games’’ flawless seduction.
‘Dark Paradise’ and ‘Radio’ fare better, but still sound like ‘Born To Die’ retreads with their splashy drums and string accompaniments. Recovering momentum, ‘Carmen’, a dark tale of pretty-girl psychosis, is a winner, with Del Rey’s richly suggestive tones conjuring the ghosts of Lauren Bacall’s classic femme-fatales. Meanwhile, ‘Summertime Sadness’, a pop number with that patented, pimp-my-homecoming parade feel and lyrics, underlines the self-fulfilling nature of her prophetic pining: “[i]Think I’ll miss you forever/Like the stars miss the sun in the morning sky[/i]”.
Although it’s not quite the perfect pop record ‘Video Games’ might have led us to wish for, ‘Born To Die’ still marks the arrival of a fresh – and refreshingly self-aware – sensibility in pop. Some of the sprightlier stuff sits awkwardly, but Del Rey’s ballads pull deftly at a strain of American gothic that runs through performers like Roy Orbison and Bobbie Gentry, and nail the warped sense of nostalgia that’s been in the air recently in a way a thousand wafty shoegaze revisionists could only dream of. And that’s no mean feat.