Review | Lana Del Rey - Norman F*cking Rockwell
Lana Del Rey reinvents herself in an intimate and ambitious exploration of American identity.
As the title makes instantly clear, Norman Fucking Rockwell is pure, absolute Lana Del Rey. The music is driven by the same obsession with vulgarized Americana that’s ignited her work since the beginning. For the most part, the songs are still slow, sad, nostalgic and narrated by Del Rey’s sex positive, all-American femme-fatale character. Yet simultaneously, the album showcases a more refined voice and mature sound. She’s evolved past the Tumblr hippie clichés that drowned out Ultraviolence. Instead, Norman Fucking Rockwell reveals a more stripped-down Del Rey, as ironic as ever, but with a newfound penchant for subtlety and experimentation.
Del Rey’s previous album, Lust For Life, felt like an artist spiralling into irrelevance. Despite mixing up her formula with some poor trap production and ill-suited features, the album was essentially a tedious listing of her favourite iconography. On the other hand, Norman Fucking Rockwell is full of unexpected and effective creative decisions. “Venice Bitch” is a tender folk ballad which slowly drifts into a ten-minute psychedelic breakdown. If it weren’t for Del Rey’s instantly familiar voice, the song would be an unrecognizable addition to her catalogue. It’s simultaneously intimate and epic, and probably the best song she’s ever recorded. There’s also “Doin’ Time”, a Gershwin-sampling Sublime cover. The song’s an oddity on the tracklist, an upbeat, reverb-heavy pop song boasting a groovy bassline and trip hop-inspired beat. These tracks, which explore new territory for Del Rey, an artist often criticized for slumping back into her usual slow siren songs, show tremendous growth. Credit should be given to Jack Antonoff, the pop producer behind Lorde’s Melodrama and Taylor Swift’s Lover. His presence is perhaps part of the reason Del Rey is exploring more compositionally ambitious songwriting and, finally, stepping out of her comfort zone.
In the album’s more minimalist moments, like the piano ballad “How to Disappear”, Del Rey shows a lot of courage as a lyricist. Unlike Ultraviolence, where most of the songs exist to create an artificial and mostly transparent image for Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell feels infinitely more mature. It seems, for the first time, she’s singing from her own perspective rather than some contrived and idealized variation of herself. Yet none of this is to imply Del Rey’s lost her wit. After all, the album opens with the lines “Goddamn, man-child/You fucked me so good that I almost said I love you.” On the contrary, the album finds her masterfully fusing her signature melancholy with clever allusions and irony. Despite the album’s tendency to drift into Leonard Cohen-inspired cryptic ramblings, Del Rey still infuses it with plenty of infectious melodies. For some stretches, Norman Fucking Rockwell almost feels like a conventional singer-songwriter album. And yet Del Rey’s voice, sometimes confident, sometimes vulnerable, always beautiful, injects a unique emotional backing.
In truth, this is a bit unexpected. Like magic, Del Rey has bounced back after two years, equipped with surprising clarity and vision. Her past albums are simultaneously titillated and repulsed by the underpinnings of American culture. Yet she lacked the critical voice to dissect her favourite subjects. Though undeniably fun, the songs on Ultraviolence often feel like nostalgic namedrops and references with little depth. Norman Fucking Rockwell, on the other hand, is a grand American odyssey with clear intentions. It’s a very personal and introspective album. Yet it’s also about a nation seduced by the glamour of consumerism and celebrity. Del Rey sings about how the authentic self and a fabricated culture can become intertwined. In the midst of all this chaos, she searches for herself. Norman Fucking Rockwell, Del Rey’s most unique and sincere work to date, is proof she was successful in that quest.
Best song: Venice Bitch
Worst song: Love Song