Image Credit: Polydor Records - 2019
“Goddamm manchild, f--ked me so good that I almost said I love you” Lana Del Rey croons over gentle piano chords and acoustic guitar on the eponymous track of her latest album. While it may be somewhat of a crude opener, it does an excellent job of setting the tone for the entire project - it’s bittersweet, melancholic and packed with self-deprecating wit. Her latest album might not be the "next best American record" she sings of but it's certainly a step in the right direction for the California singer/songwriter. It might not have the political barb or social conscience of 2017’s Lust For Life but where Norman F--king Rockwell shines is in it’s personality and utterly bleak charm. There's a darkness to the songwriting and lyrics Del Rey weaves across the album's 14 tracks, something that's never quite been achieved with previous efforts.
Fans of Del Ray’s previous work will certainly not be disappointed by this album. Vocals swim in reverb, gentle guitars and warbling synths layer over soft drum beats and the whole thing is doused in heartbreak and melancholy. Stylistically it's nothing new for pop's resident "sad girl" but it is something of a more mature and refined take on her usual sultry indie-pop anthems with production courtesy of Jack Antonoff, collaborator of Lorde and Taylor Swift.
Instrumentally the album is subdued but never dull, decisively retro but never derivative. There’s Twin Peak’s-esque guitar melodies that swoon amongst gentle harp, ghostly piano, strings and brass, accompanied by harsh synthesizers that never feel intrusive. Where on previous albums, Lana occasionally strays into the 'Instagram sepia filter' kind of vintage with slightly kitsch ideas and a sickly production gloss, the strong 70's influence on the production and instrumentals on Norman F--king Rockwell thankfully never come across as gimmicky or cheap.
It’s also manages to stay consistent without sacrificing depth, Del Rey manages to pull of a decent amount of stylistic variety across the album and tries her hand at a couple of different genres. Tracks such as ‘California’ and 'The greatest' hit hard with driving chords and strings, a more empowered and passionate energy soft rock than some of her previous work. There's also unapologetic pop anthems like her cover of Sublime's ‘Doin Time’, with catchy refrains and hefty choruses that seem destined for festival crowd singalongs. Del Rey's usual sultry indie pop also makes its way into the album with tracks like 'F--k it I love you', with it's swirling choruses and layered vocals that seems oddly timeless. Other tracks like ‘Love song’ and ‘Cinnamon Girl’ are more contemplative and self assured affairs, with sparse melodies and bitter lyrics destined for the Instagram captions of edgy teenagers. Some cuts are considerably more bleak in tone. ‘Happiness Is A Butterfly’ is an ode to nihilism, there’s a powerful sense of dread, tragedy and sadness that pack more of an emotional heft than anything from her back catalogue. For the most part it all kind of works, Norman F--king Rockwell is the first album where Lana manages to juggle a variety of styles and sounds without her songwriting coming across as either messy experimentation or pointless nostalgia.
While it remains consistent in style, Norman F--king Rockwell never quite manages to find tonal consistency.The album is littered with tonal contradictions and juxtaposed musical ideas across the 14 tracks. Lyrics are equal parts empowering and socially derivative, the image of an idyllic 50's Americana with its gender and masculinity are often at odds with the more feminist aspects of the album. This contradiction is echoed in the instrumentals, sonically rooted in the pop of days gone by but with a couple of nagging modern elements that somewhat break the immersion of the dreamy vintage pop Del Rey creates.Throughout the album there are so many great ideas but an equal number of awkward or underdeveloped ones. It's frustrating at times, Del Rey frequently pushes a good idea so far that it becomes naff. Take the constant references to the likes of The Beats, Plath, Bowie and Joni Mitchell, for example. At their best they can be subtle nods to her heroes, at their worst she batters you round the face with her inspirations so aggressively and relentlessly that it's hard to see it as anything other than crass imitation or pointless name-dropping.
While Lana Del Rey seems incapable of casting aside her catalogue of references and homages, Norman F--king Rockwell is a triumph of melancholy pop in a particularly saturated market. With everyone from Lorde and Taylor Swift to Billie Eilish trying to have a shot at the crown of “sad girl” pop, it’s reassuring to see Lana retain her status as the ultimate accompaniment to crying into a bottle of Rosé whilst browsing Urban Outfitters.
Which is good because I need that in my life.