Lana Del Rey – ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ review

Score

Lana Del Rey's fifth album, 'Norman Fucking Rockwell!' contains multitudes. The way she balances and embodies them on this well-rounded record is nothing short of stunning

In Lana Del Rey’s Twitter bio you’ll find a quote from Walt Whitman’s 1892 poem Song Of Myself. It’s an unsurprising move for someone who’s spent much of the last decade carving out her niche as a 21st-century pop poet documenting, much like Whitman did, her own perspective of America.

The quote itself – “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself; I am large – I contain multitudes” – feels like an apt one for this point in Del Rey’s career. Since she broke through with ‘Video Games’ in 2011, she’s been pegged as music’s resident “sad girl”. In 2017, she challenged that label as she beamed at the world from the sleeve of her fifth album ‘Lust For Life’. The narrative was that she was happy now but, as Whitman himself alluded, life doesn’t have a single focus and no one is consistently one thing through it all.

On ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’, Del Rey is many contradicting things. She is hopelessly in love and resigned to misery, an emotional crutch and a “fucking mess”, willing to forgive the men in her life and disappointed in those who orbit in the same circles as her. It’s an album of emotional ups and downs but one that feels, perhaps thanks to her past habit of filtering things through a world of old Hollywood glamour and soft-focus romanticism, like her realest one yet.

There’s nothing soft or romantic about this record’s opening lines. “Goddamn manchild/You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you’,” she sings on the title track, gentle piano rolling beneath her. As she continues, she paints a fuller picture of the target of her words – a fun and wild “self-loathing poet” who blames his inadequate words on the news. As with many of the men in Del Rey’s songs, she openly acknowledges his flaws with a wicked sense of humour, but seems OK to stick it out with him. “Why wait for the best when I could have you?” she asks at one point, as if finding someone better who doesn’t make her feel blue isn’t a realistic option.

On ‘Love Song’, a gorgeous track that drifts on stroked piano notes and the ghostly echo of strings, things are a little better. “Oh, be my once in a lifetime,” she murmurs serenely, as if she’s whispering her desires to a sleeping lover. ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’, which swells and strips back like the tide, and the dark, driving ‘California’ find her offering to hold someone up and guide them through gloomier days (“You don’t ever have to be stronger than you really are/When you’re lying in my arms,” she promises on the latter), while ‘Happiness Is A Butterfly’ has her almost nihilistically accepting a tragic fate. “If he’s a serial killer then what’s the worst/That can happen to a girl who’s already hurt?” she asks with the air of someone always expecting the worst. “If he’s as bad as they say, then I guess I’m cursed.

Overall, ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ isn’t a surprising record – it’s a logical next step for Del Rey to take in a journey that’s seen her grow from hip-hop-flecked pop to bohemian folk. It would be easy for it to feel like Lana Del Rey-by-numbers but she avoids that trap by making something filled with beauty that subtly moves her sound on, ushering her into territory marked “timeless”. For anyone who thought her team-up with Jack Antonoff, a now omnipresent figure in big female pop records (Taylor Swift, Lorde) and this album’s producer, would mean the Bleachers frontman’s brand of crystalline euphoria being injected into the mix, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Everything here feels entirely Lana, exactly as you’d want.

Just because ‘NFR!’ isn’t entirely unexpected doesn’t mean there aren’t any moments that catch you off guard though. For starters, there’s a pretty faithful cover of Sublime’s ‘Doin’ Time’, originally recorded for a documentary about the Long Beach ska-punk band. Del Rey’s version has more of a mystical air to it, but still contains echoes of the original’s dubby grit woven into its witchy atmosphere.

Then, there’s the little utterances that are littered throughout the record that you wouldn’t bat an eyelid to with anyone else but feel odd given how closely linked the person singing them here is with nostalgia and vintage Americana. On ‘The Greatest’ (maybe one of the greatest songs she’s ever written), she sings, “the culture is lit and I’ve had a ball” in a tone that could be incredibly sincere or eye-rolling sarcasm. As the album comes to an end, she throws in a quick nod to modern technology, purring, “Hello, it’s the most famous woman you know on the iPad” on the tender waltz of ‘Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have – But I Have It’.

That she veers from the ultra-modern to references to Sylvia Plath and photographer Slim Aarons, and from Laurel Canyon folk to trembling psych solos, on an album named after American author and illustrator Norman Rockwell only seem to prove the point she’s trying to make in her Twitter bio. Lana Del Rey is large – she contains multitudes, and the way she balances and embodies them on her fifth album is nothing short of stunning.

Details

Release Date: August 30, 2019
Record Label: Polydor/Interscope