Few pop stars are as adept at world-building as Lana Del Rey. Since the release of her first single, 2011’s gloomy, longing “Video Games,” she’s been music’s bard of bummers. Her smoke-plume voice recalls torch singers of yore; her imagery tugs on the threads of post-war Americana —the sun-dappled dreams begat by California’s blue skies, the harsh spotlights of Hollywood — and pairs that fading romanticism with the highest highs and most soul-deadening lows of modern love. To borrow a phrase coined by the Bob Crewe Generation 1966 (and borrowed by Del Rey decades later), it’s music to watch girls by — only in Del Rey’s world, the woman being viewed is the same one offering commentary.
Del Rey’s sixth album, Norman F—ing Rockwell, continues this tradition, although it strikes out in a more mood-music-minded direction. Gone are the boldfaced-name cameos that studded her last full-length, 2017’s Lust for Life; gone, too, are the harsh sonics that made the sharpest moments of 2015’s Honeymoon cut even more deeply. Working primarily with pop whisperer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift’s recent album, Lorde’s Melodrama), Del Rey digs deep into the atmospherics; her perpetually wounded drawl hovers above swooning strings and swirling synths, which rise up in extended codas and on power-ballad-worthy guitar solos.
Over its 14 tracks, Rockwell keeps its midtempo mood steady, whether Del Rey’s characters are rushing down low-lit California highways or hiding out in anonymous Valley suburbs. The songs tend to flow into each other, although Antonoff and Del Rey’s partnership does result in some lovely musical moments. The coda of the winding “Venice Bitch” is a starlit landscape of fractured synths and woozy guitars, while the piano-led wind-down of the gently apocalyptic “The greatest” winks out the way someone in bed and exhausted by a Twitter feed’s worth of information might at the end of a particularly heavy-eyed scroll session.
At times, Del Rey’s wit cuts through the gloom, winking at her own melodramas in a way that makes you wonder why she wasn’t invited to be the musical guest at this year’s camp-themed Met Gala. “Why wait for the best when I could have you?” she sings to the pretentious narcissist at the slow-building title track’s center. “My baby used to dance underneath my architecture,” she croons over the fingerpicked guitars and frosted-over keyboards of “The Next Best American Record,” slipping Elvis Costello’s famous line about the low utility of music critics into a song about pursuing rock-canon notoriety — and calling back to her own “Video Games” on the bridge.
Those moments do leaven the mood, a necessary corrective for an album that can seem like it’s stuck in a hermetically sealed chamber of blur-heavy Instagram filters and dog-eared poetry anthologies. Del Rey’s constant positioning of her central character as a romantic is given extra tragedy (or tragicomedy) by the men described in her lyrics, who are often painted with broad strokes. But some details stick out. “If you hold me without hurting me/ You’ll be the first who ever did,” she quivers on the spectral view of a bad love “Cinnamon Girl,” while her beachfront-bonfire take on the ska-punk band Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” leaves in its bridge, which climaxes with a desire to hold an allegedly “evil” woman’s head underwater — a chilling image that, when Del Rey sings it in the upper reaches of her voice, underscores the bad vibes underneath the galloping bassline and Gershwin interpolations.
But Del Rey remains, or at least the character at the center of Norman F—ing Rockwell does. “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it,” the closing track on the album, is a stark ballad that describes the churning emotions underneath a placid façade. With its bloodstained, detailed revisiting of how she got to where she is, it’s the type of “my life until now” ballad that would close down a Broadway revue. Over a piano, her story builds and builds, until she sings the song’s titular phrase in her upper register, her voice breaking as she chops the words up until a final “I have.” The song’s final chord then hangs in the air, strangely unresolved — an ending that belies her belief that she’ll have lots more stories to tell in the years to come. B