When Lana Del Rey emerged with the virally successful single ‘Video Games’ in 2011, she wasn’t someone who I had pegged for a long career. ‘Video Games’ had a unique atmosphere, a cinematic ballad with nostalgic Hollywood glamour, but it pigeon-holed Del Rey into a distinctive style.
Since then, Del Rey’s worked with different producers, who’ve provided different backdrops, but regretful and languid ballads have remained her bread and butter. To give her credit, she’s worked at her craft, shaking up her sound just enough to stay fresh while continuing to write fascinating lyrics, keeping her critically and commercially relevant.
Norman F*****g Rockwell!, largely written and produced by Del Rey and Jack Antonoff, has been widely acclaimed as Del Rey’s best album to date. It manifested gradually – the excellent singles ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ and ‘Venice Bitch’ appeared a year before the album.
Del Rey has credited the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump and worsenin g environment threats with inspiring her – NFR! explores the decay of the American dream. Typically, it’s steeped in Californian nostalgia, with references to film and musicians like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Dennis Wilson, and the Eagles. The album is named for the painter Norman Rockwell – he serves as a metaphor for immature men.
It helps that Del Rey is endlessly interesting. Her visual aesthetic for NFR! has apparently consisted of submitting whatever photo she had on hand for her single and album covers – hence the NFR! cover shot of Del Rey with Duke Nicholson, Jack Nicholson’s grandson. She’s also exchanged words with critic Ann Powers, taking umbrage at Powers’ suggestion that Del Rey uses a persona – surely a difficult position for Del Rey to defend, given that Del Rey is a stage name (her real name is Elizabeth Woolridge Grant), and the consistent lyrical aesthetic she uses.
Jack Antonoff is largely known for his synth-pop productions for Lorde, Taylor Swift, and Carly Rae Jepsen, but here he backs Del Rey with classy piano-based arrangements. The material is consistently excellent, but at 67 minutes with very little variation in tempo or style, NFR! is less than the sum of its parts.
The song that deviates furthest from the Lana Del Rey template is ‘Venice Bitch’ – it’s almost ten minutes long, and the second half is given over to lovely psychedelic noodling.
Despite the overall quality, the album’s not helped in that the most memorable material is clustered around the front. Along with ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ and ‘Venice Bitch’, Del Rey’s cover of Sublime’s ‘Doin’ Time’ is also featured early. There are pretty piano ballads sprinkled throughout NFR! – ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘The Greatest’, and ‘Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have – But I Have It’ are all diminished in impact by the album’s length.
It would be harsh to cull some of these terrific pieces to b-sides or another project, but with its lack of stylistic variation, Norman F*****g Rockwell! is difficult to digest in one stint, and it would be better served with a shorter running time. A forty five minute version of NFR! would be in the running for my album of the year, at almost seventy minutes it’s merely very good.