Lana Del Rey is a supernatural being. In a world of music myth figures (the Bowies, the Kate Bushes, the Led Zeppelins), Lana Del Rey doesn’t just sing, she haunts, she bewitches. We can only convince ourselves that we have even the most tenuous of grasps on who she is. She has done a very good job rendering herself as myth in her short time on the scene. Aesthetic queen, Americana Lolita, glam swamp witch: Lana has been all of these things, at various intersecting times. We have been long reluctant to accept her mythology, an artistic construction few female artists are allowed. For some, the discovery of Lizzy Grant, daughter of wealthy Manhattanites, was a triumph. Proof that Lana Del Rey was inauthentic, a cheap kitsch attempt at disguise. The rest of us stood yelling, “Well, yes, that’s the whole fucking point.”
The birth of Lana Del Rey in 2012, with the self-directed video for “Video Games” and the subsequent release of her first full-length album Born To Die, also bore an image we’ve been picking apart across the span of half a decade and three studio albums. There is much to take issue with: from her blonde vapid american dream debut aesthetic to her devotion to the romantic sugar daddy characters that dominate more than half of her songs. Still, it’s easy to get lost in the narratives, because Lana Del Rey is a storyteller and an image maker. To chip away at her facade is to find that there’s nothing behind it. Reading interviews, like this one, with Lana tells us nothing (when asked what her new album is about: “I don’t know what it’s about. I don’t know what it is.”). She wants it this way.
Lust For Life, released today, takes all of these cliches, caricatures, and aesthetics and amps them up. It is, for better or worse, a Lana Del Rey album through and through. To say that Del Rey’s fourth studio album has a self-awareness that the previous releases lack is dangerous because the mere concept of “self” is troubled in the Lana Del Rey mythos. But Lust For Life certainly confronts its own images in interesting ways. The album invokes music mythologies and plays with them like toys. In “Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind”, perhaps the best example of this, Del Rey whimsically bridges the gap between two music rituals: Woodstock, the supposed golden standard for both music festivals and tired rock nostalgia, and Coachella, the over-hyped imitation beloved by hipsters and snapchat. The song is somber, and filled with images that begged to be called trite: “’Cause what about all these children / And what about all their parents? / And what about about all their crowns they wear / In hair so long like mine?” referring to the flower crowns worn at coachella, popularized by Del Rey herself. But the dance with music myth holds fast in the song’s chorus, “I’d trade it all for a stairway to heaven (a stairway, stairway to heaven)”
In “Cherry”, one of the album’s more ingenious but understated tracks, Del Rey dusts off some old favorites while flirting with the witchery she introduced in the album’s trailer: images of heaven and hell (“A touch from your real love / Is like heaven taking the place of something evil”) and old hollywood (“My celluloid scenes are torn at the seams”) frame a chorus that reads like a grimoire: “My cherries and wine, rosemary and thyme”. Lana Del Rey has always been interested in the darkness that rests underneath the supposed soft fragility of (white) femininity, and her narratives tend to depict cruel men breaking the hearts of innocent young girls. “Cherry”’s seemingly random inserts of “bitch” and “fuck” after lines such as “all of my peaches ruined” and “I fall to pieces” remind us that the hurt girls in Del Rey’s song-stories have a healthy amount of rage brewing within them. “Cherry” also shows off some of her vocal chops, which are usually hidden behind the subdued wailing and lilting that is characteristic of a Lana Del Rey song.
There is also, just barely resting under the surface, the spectre of our current political climate haunting a few of the songs on the album, unexpected from an artist whose most famous political imagery is a reenactment of the Marilyn Monroe-JFK affair. “God Bless America (And All The Beautiful Women In It)” stands as one of the most startling remixes of a classic Lana Del Rey trope. Born to Die’s “National Anthem”, the song for which the JFK music video was made, introduced to us her dedication to americana and patriotic kitsch. But where “I’m your national anthem / God, you’re so handsome / Take me to the Hamptons” manages to be both provocative and empty in the way we love our Lana Del Rey songs to be, “God bless America, and all the beautiful women in it / May you stand proud and strong / Like Lady Liberty shining all night long” feels suspiciously genuine and hints at something more substantial. It’s no protest anthem or fight song, but it hints at purpose in unexpected ways nonetheless, just enough to make an otherwise predictable song interesting.
As much as the album serves as a seance with ghosts of music myth, it also indulges with contemporary célèbre to a degree that previous Lana Del Rey albums haven’t: Lust For Life features cameos by A$AP Rocky (with whom Del Rey has worked before, appearing in the aforementioned video for “National Anthem”), Sean Oko Lennon, The Weeknd, and Stevie Nicks. All of these seemingly disparate artists (both with each other and with Del Rey herself) work remarkably well, showing the versatility of a singer famous for homogeneity. “Summer Bummer” and “Groupie Love” (both feat. A$AP Rocky) shine particularly bright.
All in all, after the unsurprising and ultimately mediocre Honeymoon, an album that in many ways felt more like a collection of B-sides from previous albums, Lust for Life is startling and fresh in unexpected ways, while still giving us the aesthetic-driven sensual dream-pop that only a Lana Del Rey album can deliver. •
Lust For Life is out today and available to stream on Spotify and iTunes. You can also purchase the album here [affiliate link].