As patron saints go, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect one for our endlessly troubled times. And the inspirational beauty of Lana Del Rey is that she’s living proof that sometimes there’s a swimming pool of gold at the end of your tar-black rainbow.
Let’s start in the present—a time when the woman once known as Elizabeth Woolridge Grant has established herself as one of the most fascinatingly complex artists of her generation. To immerse yourself in her masterful new album Norman Fucking Rockwell! is to enter a world where nothing—with the possible exception of a Sublime summertime—is easy.
Del Rey sets the table right away with the best opening lines of the year: “Goddamn, man-child/You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.’ ” Against all odds, things get even greater from there, as the singer sums up the dynamics of every relationship ever with “But you don’t know the half of the shit that you put me through,” and then drives things home with “Why wait for the best when I could have you?”
What gets lost if you’re not paying attention is that Del Rey gets the joke.
There’s plenty of sadness on Norman Fucking Rockwell!—the record’s very title operates as a commentary on where America once was (see the paintings of Norman Rockwell) and where it is today. From the burnt-orange clown sitting in the White House right down to the Kardashians, the USA is currently fucked, the days of white picket fences and idyllic small towns a time-faded memory. Still, it’s all somehow funny once you get past the surrealness.
And so is Del Rey on Norman Fucking Rockwell!, whether she’s announcing “Fresh out of fucks forever” in “Venice Bitch” or wondering “If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst/That can happen to a girl who’s already hurt?/I’m already hurt,” in “Happiness Is a Butterfly”.
The brilliance of Lana Del Rey is the mystique around her—whether by design, or entirely unintentional. Figuring out what’s fact and what’s fiction has been nearly impossible.
Start with her essential breakthrough, Born to Die. The cover shows Del Rey in a crisp white, admirably classy button-up shirt, her retro hairdo and makeup every bit as perfect as Jackie O’s during the Kennedy years. But while the singer looks born to summer on the shores of 1950s Cape Cod, the lyrics on Born to Die suggest that something darker is going on inside.
Want an invaluable perspective on the crazy and often harrowing journey that is life? Turn to the title track for the strangely comforting lyrics “Sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough/I don’t know why.”
Del Rey—who once described herself as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra”—could have made a cottage industry out of playing the Eternal Queen of Sadness, but that would have been taking the easy route.
Instead, the most telling lyrics on Born to Die came from the breakthrough single, “Video Games”. With “Tell me all the things you wanna do/I heard that you like the bad girls/Honey, is that true?” Del Rey made it crystal clear that her Vogue vintage-chic look on the cover was deceiving. And that she might be anything but an entirely perfect good girl is a message she’s come back to over and over again as her career has progressed, whether in the self-explanatory “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” off 2014’s daring Ultraviolence, or in the opening line “My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola” from “Cola”, off 2012’s breezy Paradise.
Should you need further proof that she’s not always the model of runway-ready togetherness she seems on the covers of Born to Die, Honeymoon, and Lust for Life, recall the monologue at the beginning of her early song “Ride”. That’s where she reveals “I was always an unusual girl/My mother told me that I had a chameleon soul/No moral compass pointing due north,” and then goes on to proclaim “I am fucking crazy, but I am free.” Or consult the darkly angelic Norman Fucking Rockwell! song “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have—But I Have It” and its lyrics “I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown/24/7 Sylvia Plath/Writing in blood on my walls.”
To be even passingly familiar with her back story is to think that Del Rey has every reason to be just as tortured and therapy-ready as the rest of us. There was the drinking problem that came to a head when she was forced to get sober at age 14, as the singer told GQ in 2012: “When I write about the thing that I’ve lost I feel like I’m writing about alcohol because that was the first love of my life. Sure, there have been people, but it’s really alcohol.”
There was the difficult early-career appearance on Saturday Night Live, when Del Rey was pilloried for an uneven, clearly-not-ready-for-prime-time showing one should have expected from someone rushed into the limelight with Born to Die.
And most difficult of all, there was the entirely unfounded rumour, early in her career, that she was somehow a record-industry construct—that everything from her image to her music had been carefully shaped in a boardroom. Stop and think about the idiocy of that for a quick second. As if a major-label suit would have dreamed up a hyperintrospective, dark-hearted romantic working in a genre best described as cinematic torch-pop.
And the genius of it all is that the person you get on record isn’t necessarily the person you get at home—unless she’s in a Twitter scrap with Azealia Banks. Del Rey isn’t overly wild about doing interviews, but when she does—and especially recently—she comes across as not only well-adjusted and funny, but anything but tortured.
That might explain why, on Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s “Mariners Apartment Complex”, Del Rey starts with “You took my sadness out of context.”
In an interview with the BBC, she noted that the track was inspired by a date on which a guy told her “I think we are together because we’re both similar, like we’re both really messed up.” Her response was “I’m not sad.…I’m actually doing pretty good.” And then she went home and wrote “Mariners Apartment Complex”, which is one of 14 reasons that Normal Fucking Rockwell! is the greatest, most rewarding record you’ll hear this year.
What’s real and what’s exaggerated for dramatic effect with Lana Del Rey? She’s probably the only one who’ll ever know. If she's one of those people who's mastered the difficult art of keeping the inner demons at bay when out in public, that means she's basically like the rest of us. It's reassuring to know you're not alone.
As far as Del Rey's artistic persona goes, she's a hyper-stylized throwback to a past when three-martinis and Newport cigarettes were a part of any balanced lunch, and memories were made using Kodak film and a Leica M rangefinder camera. Note how Del Rey's videos are often treated to look like sunfaded scratched-up artifacts from an era when 8mm ruled, her smoke-hazed songs rich with Widescreen strings recalling Hollyood in the golden '40s.
What makes things interesting is the way she's able to play with time periods—no one in the long-gone America Del Rey sometimes seems obsessed wrotes lyrics like "Let me fuck you hard in the pouring rain/You like your girls insane”.
Ultimately, all that's really important is that pop’s patron saint of the perpetually troubled is there for you when the road gets tough. And if you ever doubt that, look no further than “Mariners Apartment Complex”, where she offers the following: “Maybe I could save you from your sins/So kiss the sky and whisper to Jesus/My, my, my, you found this, you need this/Take a deep breath, baby, let me in.”
Lana Del Rey plays Rogers Arena on Monday (September 30).