I first encountered Lana del Rey in an interview she gave for Attitude magazine in August 2011. This was still a few months before her edgy promo for ‘Video Games’ went viral on YouTube, and yet the myths about who she really is were already being concocted on the Internet. You’ll have heard most of it by now. She called herself ‘the gangsta Nancy Sinatra’, and 158,000 online articles later, she’s lived to regret it. As soon as her acclaimed underground hit went mainstream she was touted as a record company manufacture. And, after some shambolic performances on TV – notably on Saturday Night Live – it was questioned whether she could actually sing at all.
So what do we know? Born as plain old Lizzy Grant, a failed attempt at stardom a few years ago led her back to the drawing board where she created Lana Del Rey. She appears as a combination of Mad Men’s Betty Draper, and some weird David Lynch character – a plausible comparison when you consider her hometown is Lake Placid, New York – population 2,368. Looking every bit the American beauty queen (collagen lips included), she’s just as concerned with the dark underbelly of that ideal. She’s got the look and the ideas, but does the music back them up?
The mantra for the album appears to have been a simple one: sultry laments of doomed love, to the sound of a ‘boom, bo-tish’ drum loop and a string section, with an isolated guitar playing the occasional Twin Peaks twang. It sounds simple – but whether you brand her a good singer or not, it’s difficult not to be drawn in when her voice first plays out on the title track, with a dullness akin to a low violin phrase: “Feet don’t fail me now”. Indeed her entire style is summed up in ‘Born To Die’. She knows the limitations of her voice and she plays to it. The climactic refrain of the song (“Come and take a walk on the wild side…”), which Adele might belt out, is delivered as a semi-whisper here – somewhere between Marilyn and Jessica Rabbit. As you do.
The songs no doubt owe a lot to Justin Parker – her co-writer on most of the tracks. You can’t argue with choruses like ‘Video Games’ and ‘National Anthem’. Every hummable hook is perfectly constructed to sound like we’ve heard it a hundred times before, and yet the production by Emile Haynie makes the retro arrangements sound fresh. Her thematic concerns are about falling in love – truly, madly, even fatally. She speaks of bad guys and girls, crowns herself the Queen of Coney Island, and compares herself to ‘Carmen’ and ‘Lolita’ on the respectively titled tracks. Her lyrics imply she’s as fame hungry as that other great incarnation of our times, Lady Gaga – although her dour demeanour doesn’t quite match that of Mother Monster. At times she sounds bored – and both her voice and her concept may appear predictable and repetitious to some. Arguably 15 tracks on the deluxe edition is a bit of a stretch – but despite its musical and lyrical repetition, you won’t be darting to switch it off after the first 5. The songs are like different items in a new fashion collection – you get the overall idea quite quickly, but it’s still nice to look at the rest.
I can’t help but applaud Del Rey for moulding a concept, and so spectacularly embodying it, ensuring her place in public interest and musical merit. I almost didn’t bother to review Born To Die, because it’s been a few weeks since it hit the charts, but the record keeps coming back to make me think, and I return to listen to it more than any of my other recent purchases . So, as much as the buzz around Lana Del Rey is still sounding, for one reason or another, it is justified.
Lana Del Rey plays Lovebox on June 17th, and Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend on June 22nd.