Album review: Lana Del Rey Norman Fucking Rockwell!

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it’. All lower case, and a song title that could easily be a parody of what a typical Lana Rey Dey song title could be for some Saturday Night Live spoof – but it’s not.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! (there’s another one!) is Lana Del Rey’s six album since her debut Born to Die arrived in 2012. That’s almost a record a year and for any artist this would considered prolific – especially so for a performer who was almost written off from the get-go as some variation of a fake, industry plant who should make the very most of her rapidly ticking 15 minutes.

What was overlooked however is that what stood immediately behind the seamless PR and marketing that morphed Lizzie Grant into Lana Del Rey was an artist who lived for immaculate song-craft and couldn’t stop themselves from making music, regardless of sales. A music-lover then, and also a pro.

Lana Del Rey still pisses people off and will never be taken seriously by a certain kind of music fan. To them she is a swaying and contrived nihilistic phoney who has an established set of basic, lyrical and musical tropes that she has thoroughly exhausted.

And you know what? There’s some truth to some of that. The persona of Lana Del Rey is carefully constructed, certainly just as much as, say, Rihanna’s or Adele’s, and her musical style is established and is not trend based. This means that you know, to a certain degree, what you’re going to get and Norman Fucking Rockwell! is not her reinvention.

Del Rey’s fanbase is huge and slavish and she tours constantly. The appeal is an intensely evocative and human voice that resembles no other contemporary singer and songs which sound alien and distant, certainly not contemporary, but not quite a retro tribute. And an absolute dedication to refining her own craft, something that her fans react to with adoration and respect.

Where Norma Fucking Rockwell! differs from Del Rey’s work thus far is in how exposed the singer has made herself. Lust for Lust, Del Rey’s last album from 2017, had six guest-vocalist features and on NFR there are none.

This is also Del Rey’s most traditionally acoustic album. This an artist who has always represented her mix of old and new with hip hop beats and (her own description) murky trap interspersed with baroque strings and 70s guitars.

The first three songs that were heard from the album were a nine-minute prog-rock almost-dirge, a folksy blues mid-tempo and a plaintive piano balled that calls out Sylvia Plath – so no trap beats and guest rappers. What these song share though are tricksy, expertly crafted melodies, and they are three of Del Rey’s best songs ever.

They are also representative of the quality of songs that Del Rey has written for NFR –  a record that both elevates and confirms her status as an albums artist who understands how to pace and construct a full length record.

Lana Del Rey is still provocative and occasionally infuriating. ’If he’s a serial killer then what’s the worst that could happen to a girl who’s already hurt?’ on ‘Happiness Is A Butterfly’ feels unnecessary now but thankfully these dodgy, bad/sad girl pay-backs are now few and far between.

The title track, which alludes to both Fiona Apple and Joni Mitchell, opens the album with the line ’Goddamn man-child, you fucked me so good I almost said I Love You’ and ends with ‘You’re just a man, that’s just what you do’ and it’s thrilling to hear Del Rey sound so dismissive and unshackled.

The producer of NFR is the omnipresent Jack Antonoff, he of Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepson and Lorde fame. If Del Rey had thought her electro-pop album was now due (yes please!) then Antonoff would be the man to go to without doubt, but meandering acoustic blues and easy listening rock? Not so much. But they are a somehow perfect fit. Antonoff shares Del Rey’s ear for melody and penchant for phrasing and has helped secure her vision for this record.

‘Doin’ Time’ is an inspired cover version of the Sublime track and the album’s one uptempo that sounds like it could be a radio hit. There are other surprising sonic left-turns and hidden trap-doors all over this record and it’s a joy taking the time, something this record forces you to do, discovering these destabilising and unpredictable moments that help secure the album’s oddness and establish it’s durability.

‘Cinnamon Girl’ and the trip-hop waltz ‘How to Disappear’ both change direction in their final minutes and ‘The Next American Record’ gets a lot of feels from the lyrically abstract line ‘My baby likes to dance underneath my architecture‘.

The sharply satirical coda which ends the otherwise classic rock track ‘The greatest’ (small g) is very suddenly moving and unsettling; ‘LA is in flames, it’s getting hot, Kanye West is blond and gone, “Life on Mars” ain’t just a song, oh the livestream’s almost on’ as a lonely piano plays out the last minute.

‘Bartender’ is a bare and straightforward piano ballad and if there is a point on Norma Fucking Rockwell! where you might wish to consider and reflect on Del Rey’s growth as a writer, lyricist and performer then this is as good a place as any. The defiance and humour (‘bar-t-t-t-tender’) and wistfulness in the delivery along with the delicately complex but robustly melodic songwriting confirm that Lana Del Rey is a thoroughly accomplished musician and one of the most interesting, and resilient, artists that is currently making music.

Leave a Reply