Lana Del Rey has always been a pop classicist at heart — but she’s finally made her pop classic. The long-awaited Norman Fucking Rockwell is even more massive and majestic than everyone hoped it would be. Lana turns her fifth and finest album into a tour of sordid American dreams, going deep cover in all our nation’s most twisted fantasies of glamour and danger. No other songwriter around does such an expert job of building up elaborate romantic fantasies, and then burning them to the ground. She purrs lines like, “If I wasn’t so fucked up, I’d fuck you all the time,” or, “I heard the war is over if you choose,” or, “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news.” But the fact that they’re lethally funny doesn’t make them any less chilling.
The songs on Norman Fucking Rockwell evoke Margot Robbie’s vision of Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood — still a small-time starlet, requesting VIP treatment at the Bruin Westwood theater in L.A., asking to get in free because she’s in the movie. It could have been a mortifying moment of humiliation, but she’s so guileless in her own stardom fantasy, nobody would dream of charging her the 75 cent admission. In some of these songs, Lana evokes what would have happened if this Sharon Tate wore out her old Paul Revere and the Raiders records and made it into the Seventies milieu of Malibu singer-songwriter torpor.
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Norman Fucking Rockwell was iconic before it was even released, with the string of brilliant singles Lana has rolled out over the past year as her song-by-song diary, not to mention that magnificent title. (The late David Berman wrote that he was planning to call his Purple Mountains album Strangers in the Fucking Night until he heard about Lana’s title.) “Venice Bitch” was a nine-minute swirl of psychedelic guitar smog, lush strings and low-riding G-funk synths, with Lana baring her fangs, declaring herself “fresh out of fucks forever.” “Mariners Apartment Complex” was a ballad of flesh-and-blood heartbreak, pleading, “Jesus, can’t a girl just do the best she can?” Last week, the one-two punch of “Fuck It I Love You” and “The Greatest” raised expectations to a fever pitch.
But the album exceeds them, stretching the languid groove for over an hour. The title ballad opens with the closest she comes to a romantic moment: “Goddamn, man-child/You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.’” (It evokes the deeply creepy moment on Honeymoon where she invites her lover to “kiss while we do it,” as if that’s some kind of esoteric perversion, which in her songs it is.) And the fact that this man-child fails her emotionally in every possible way? She shrugs, “You’re just a man / It’s just what you do / Your head in your hands as you color me blue.”
She updates her original pose as the “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” with Jack Antonoff as her Lee Hazelwood, rising to the occasion as her musical wingman. But nobody can doubt this is Lana’s trip. She’s always the girl in the song, whatever song happens to be on the radio right now, but she’s also the girl singing the song, making it feel doomed and fucked up and yet somehow thrilling. “The Bartender,” “How To Disappear,” “Love Song” — these are torch ballads that feel like they should be playing in the background of some lost Nineties straight-to-video erotic thriller, on a VHS tape buried in the attic of someone who hustled it from Blockbuster and died before paying the late fee.
Her 2014 Ultraviolence used to be her best album (by a mile) until now — the one where her singing and songwriting finally caught up with her myth-making flair. But she tops it here, with help from Antonoff. He’s having quite the summer, just a week after Taylor Swift dropped Lover, an album with an excellent piece of Faux Lana noir, “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince.” But here he adapts to her musical world, barely leaving any of his own fingerprints. She resurrects her Laurel Canyon 1970s soft-rock fantasies, nicking titles from Neil Young (“Cinnamon Girl”) and Joni Mitchell (“California”), going to parties where pretty people sip rum to Crosby, Stills and Nash. She’s a Joni-worthy lady of the canyon. In one of the highlights, “The Next Best American Record,” her latest man-child grooves to Led Zeppelin’s most California album, Houses of the Holy: “My baby used to dance underneath the architecture/He was Seventies in spirit, Nineties in his frame of mind.” She sings about dancing to the Eagles in Malibu—she’s always had a weird thing for the Eagles, ever since her 2014 ballad “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” where she twisted the creepy ambience of “Hotel California” into her own brilliant tale of how the West was lost.
There’s a deranged torch-ballad cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time.” When she boasts about representing the LBC, she doesn’t sound any more ludicrous than the original, yet there’s something poignant in her affection for the SoCal milieu—not to mention the disconcerting way she keeps the Sublime lyrics exactly the same, calling herself “Bradley” over 20 years after Bradley Nowell’s fatal overdose. With her title, she evokes the painter famous for depicting down-home American life. Rockwell once said, “Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps, old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand—all these things arouse feelings in me.” (There’s something so perfectly Lana-esque about that weird little “arouse feelings.”)
Norman Fucking Rockwell sounds like a whole suite of songs conceived in the Seventies twilight when all songs on the radio where about L.A. no matter where the singer was from, simply because it was universally understood that L.A. was the place where American dreams went to die. Everybody knew “L.A.” referred not to a city but to a labyrinth of AM radio hits about small-town romantics who run off to the city and get so poisoned they can never go home, so they end up stranded in a Steely Dan deep cut. On Norman Fucking Rockwell, that’s the L.A. she inhabits. When she ends with “Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For a Woman Like Me To Have…But I Have It,” she mades it feel like an epitaph for the whole country, its dreams and its dreamers. Just like she warns us in “The Greatest,” the culture is lit. And if this is it, baby, she’s had a ball.
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