When Lana Del Rey emerged with the viral single ‘Video Games’ in 2011, she wasn’t someone who I expected to enjoy 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. Del Rey’s worked with different producers, who’ve provided different musical backdrops, but slow-burning and cinematic ballads have remained her bread and butter. She’s enjoyed consistent success – every Del Rey album has reached the US top 3. Her moody and lyrics-focused music is influential on modern popular music – it’s hard to imagine Lorde or Taylor Swift’s two 2020 albums without Del Rey paving the way.
Lana Del Rey was born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, in Manhattan. She was raised Catholic and sang in Church choir. After finishing school, she spent a year waitressing and living with her aunt and uncle, where her uncle taught her how to play the guitar. She studied philosophy at University; shortly after graduating in 2008, she released her first EP, Kill Kill, as Lizzy Grant. She adopted the name Lana Del Rey, derived from actress Lana Turner and the Ford Del Rey sedan. An unsuccessful debut record, released as Lana Del Ray in 2010, was quickly withdrawn from circulation.
Del Ray uploaded ‘Video Games’ onto Youtube in 2011, a homemade video that combined webcam footage with vintage film montage. This slice of “Hollywood sadcore” attracted instant attention, and was later named by the Q Awards as Song of the Decade. While some questioned Del Rey’s credibility after a shaky performance on Saturday Night Live and a somewhat uneven album Born To Die, she established herself as an artist with 2014’s Ultraviolence. She’s continued to attract attention with each new release, each album with its own distinct identity. As much as she’s fascinating, I find many of her records overlong and lacking in diversity – if you’re a dedicated Del Rey fan you’ll probably find my ratings too low.
Lana Del Rey Album Reviews
Lana Del Ray
2010, not rated
Del Ray’s debut was withdrawn from circulation shortly after release, although I’m sure it’s floating around the internet somewhere. ‘Yayo’ was later reworked for 2013’s Paradise EP.
Born to Die
‘Video Games’ had already been out in the public domain for 6 months when Born to Die was released. She worked with a variety of producers – Robopo, who produced ‘Video Games’, aren’t used anywhere else on the disc. It’s less dignified than Lana Del Rey’s later work, but it’s also more diverse than anything else she’s done. ‘Off To The Races’ and ‘National Anthem’ have faster tempos than usual for Del Rey and as a result, she’s almost rapping on the fast-paced verses.
Along with other ballads like ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’ moody, languid ‘Video Games’ is more representative of Del Rey’s future direction. Del Rey’s a strong enough vocalist to capture a glamorous Americana vibe on ‘Million Dollar Man’ and her deep voice sounds commanding on ‘Summertime Sadness’, taking some vocal cues from hip-hop.
Born to Die established Del Rey as one of the most influential artists of the 2010s, but she’s made much better albums.
2012, not rated
This 8-track EP was released 10 months after Born to Die. I’ve never heard it, but it features the same producers as Born to Die. It features the typically provocative line “my pussy tastes like Pepsi cola.”
Del Rey required a solid follow-up to Born To Die in order to prove that she was a substantial artist. Wisely she teamed up The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, giving Ultraviolence a tougher sound and lending Del Rey indie credibility. Auerbach’s abrasive guitar adds edge to these tracks, although it’s session player Blake Stranathan who’s responsible for the thrilling climax of ‘Pretty When You Cry’. Despite the changing musical texture, Del Rey hasn’t lost her knack for provocation – ‘F***ed My Way to the Top’ is a memorable song title. The deluxe edition, with 14 tracks, dulls the impact of Ultraviolence – with little diversity, it would have worked even better as a 40-minute record.
Song by song though, it’s very good. The title track references The Crystals’ 1962 Goffin-King penned hit, ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’. ‘West Coast’ employs hip hop textures more successfully than anything on Born to Die. ‘F***ed My Way to the Top’ isn’t just memorable for its title – Del Rey’s use of her high register is lovely. ‘Money Power Glory’ plays like a subverted hymn while the record closes with ‘The Other Woman’, first popularised by Nina Simone in 1959. My favourite song though, is the opener ‘Cruel World’, dripping with atmosphere as Del Rey’s voice is impressively low and crackly in its low registers.
Ultraviolence is the strong record that Del Rey needed to establish her career.
Del Rey’s always had a lot of the glamorous torch song in her musical DNA, and it’s brought to the fore on 2015’s Honeymoon. The rock guitars of Ultraviolence are replaced by cinematic strings, bringing out her retro glamour. Her main collaborator is producer and songwriter Rick Nowels, who also worked on parts of her previous two records, producing ‘Summertime Sadness’ on Born to Die. It’s a good sound for Del Rey, although the overlength is detrimental as Honeymoon runs for more than an hour.
The record works best when Del Rey leans into the grandiose orchestral sound. Songs like the opening title track, ‘Salvatore’, and ‘The Blackest Day’ are lovely. While none of the individual tracks are especially weak, cutting a few would have helped – I could live without ‘Art Deco’ and ‘Religion’ quite happily. The pointed cover of Nina Simone’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ is more significant as a statement than as a musical piece – it had already been covered by Elvis Costello and The Animals.
Honeymoon is enjoyable but needs some pruning to be considered among Del Rey’s best records.
Lust For Life
It’s difficult to summarise Lust For Life, as it feels like a sprawling collection of tracks with little coherent identity. Rick Nowels is back in the producer’s chair, but it’s not a rehash of Honeymoon, more like an effort to try out different ideas. Lust For Life feels unfocused with its large number of guest stars, including The Weeknd, Stevie Nicks, Sean Lennon, and ASAP Rocky. As the album cover indicates, it’s sunnier than Del Rey’s previous works – there’s a warmth to songs like the title track that wasn’t there before.
As much as it’s overlong and unfocused, there’s a solid core of material on Lust For Life. The title track is a duet with The Weeknd; with its references to The Angels’ ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’ and climbing the “H” on the Hollywood sign, it’s lovely. There’s enough evocative Americana like ’13 Beaches’ and ‘White Mustang’ to push Lust For Life into typical Lana Del Rey territory. Using guest rappers is a good idea that Del Rey should explore more, even if they’re not an unqualified success here, while the Stevie Nicks duet on ‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’ is one of the record’s best songs. ‘Get Free’, buried right at the end of a 73-minute album, is blatantly similar to Radiohead’s ‘Creep’.
Lust For Life is likeable, but it’s too sprawling to be a great album.
Norman F*****g Rockwell
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 worsening environmental 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 who 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 – 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 suffers from having its most memorable material 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.
Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass
Del Rey has also released a poetry audiobook.
Chemtrails Over The Country Club
Again produced by Jack Antonoff, Chemtrails Over The Country Club is a more concise record. It’s more low-key than Del Rey’s previous work, abandoning her usual cinematic feel for acoustic arrangements. It’s often vintage in feel, recalling the singer-songwriter era of the early 1970s. The connection is accentuated by the closing song, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song ‘For Free’, a meditation on art vs commerce that encapsulates a lot of the themes that Del Rey explores on the record.
Del Rey’s falsetto is more prominent than ever before – originally she made an impression with her deep register on her initial hit ‘Video Games’, but here she’s often using her head voice. It’s excellent on the opener ‘White Dress’, as she whispers about a “Men in Music Business Conference” that occurred when she was 19. The opening of ‘Let Me Love You Like A Woman’ – “I come from a small town, how about you?” – is one of my favourite Del Rey lyrics. Del Rey’s haunting and inscrutable on ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’, the record’s standout song.
It’s understated but Chemtrails Over The Country Club is often sneaky good, one of Del Rey’s stronger records to date.
10 Best Lana Del Rey Songs
Mariners Apartment Complex
Lust For Life
Tulsa Jesus Freak
The Blackest Day
Let Me Love You Like A Woman
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