Review: Lana Del Rey’s ‘Lust for Life’

In continuation of our ongoing Girls of Summer music series, E reviews Lana Del Rey’s latest album, Lust for Life.

Beloved dream pop queen Lana Del Rey signaled a shift in her music and mystique with the release of her newest album last weekend. Produced by Polydor/Interscope Records, Lust for Life presents an evolution of Lana’s ‘awakening,’ both personal and political, and dripping with flower-child pastiche.

LDR’s discography, troubled and sublime, is a definitive autobiography in four acts. Spending her first three albums in depressive and dramatic introspection, Lust for Life is marked by her determination to leave behind the darkness she’s enshrined herself in: ‘Finally, I’m crossing the threshold / From the ordinary world / To the reveal of my heart/ want to move / Out of the black (out of the black) /Into the blue (into the blue)’ [‘Get Free’].

As the latest installment in the story of Lana, it chronicles the journey of an artist contending with her first year in Trump’s America. Her tension between apathy and feeling vaguely called to action defines this record, creating a portrait of someone privileged enough to simply sing about it.

                                                                                                      more than a smile

Lust for Life is the first of her four studio albums to present an image of Lana smiling. And what about that smile? With an effortless grin, she lets us know she’s still achingly cool, but she’s happy. I would never go as far to say that her smiling is a radical feminist act, as this HuffPo article reaches for; in fact, it’s worth reminding everyone that LDR famously remarked in this 2014 interview with FADER: “Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.”

And perhaps she isn’t all that interested in the struggle for progress, as she reveals in this album. In Lust for Life‘s second-to-last track, “Change,” she sings: ‘Lately, I’ve been thinking it’s just someone else’s job to care / Who am I to sympathize when no one gave a damn? / I’ve been thinking it’s just someone else’s job to care / But who am I to wanna try?’ Those lyrics, flippant as they are, ring as an honest confession, one that is undoubtedly relatable to her listeners in 2017 America.

old Hollywood, new idols

It’s all too easy to resign Lana to the image she painstakingly curated in her first three albums. She’s painted herself as America’s saddest sweetheart—our own contemporary Daisy Buchannan, Zelda Fitzgerald, Maria Wyeth.* We need only remember “Money Power Glory,” “National Anthem,” or “Young and Beautiful” to articulate this. Her earlier albums teeter deliciously on the precipice of self-destruction and decadent thrill; they are dark and they are drenched in her privilege. Lana offers us a vision of a luxuriantly inaccessible American Dream afforded only to a certain class of white women—and she definitely doesn’t shake this vibe in the new record.

In Lust for Life, she moves from her act of old Hollywood starlet to the role of self-appointed activist-musician; she’s quite green in this realm of  ‘social commentator,’ and tries to strengthen her sound by leaning shamelessly into 60s Americana. Lana does this by comparing Coachella to Woodstock in “Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind,” and singing along with Sean Ono Lennon for some reinvented Beatles-esque sound in ‘Tomorrow Never Came.” Lana shares an echoey duet with Stevie Nicks in “Beautiful People with Beautiful Problems,” a track that feels, honestly, like a destined union. With Lennon and Stevie lending their voices to this album, they help bridge the gap between two eras, and root Lana in some authenticity.

a warmer sound

Lana’s melancholy is definitely subdued in Lust for Life, but it’s still there, infused with her signature trap beats, drums, and breathy contralto voice. Jazz, folk, and hip hop are her essential elements that she revisits and remixes in this album. The album calls back to the hip hop sound of Born to Die, with the ethereal quality of Ultraviolence.

What makes Lust for Life different from her earlier work is its folksy-warmth and collaborative nature, as though Lana is seeing past herself for the first time. Lust for Life is heavily supported by guest artists: the Weeknd, A$AP Rocky, Playboi Carti, Stevie Nicks, and Sean Ono Lennon. These acts are decidedly featured for their aesthetic and cultural currency. Lana props herself up with the legacy of Stevie and Lennon to accentuate a vintage protest-folk aesthetic. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Lana comments on her musical evolution, saying, ‘the reason why I asked Stevie Nicks to be on the record is because she changes when her environment changes, and I’m like that as well.’ If the album is indeed reactionary, Lana takes her cues from the pros.

At 72 minutes and 16 tracks, it’s stunning at times, familiar at worst, and perhaps a few tracks too long. But it still feels like a summer, at once nostalgic and new.

 a political center

At the core of Lust for Life lies a duality: a resigned tranquility in the destruction of America as she knows it, and an ambiguous desire to change it all without knowing how. The first part of the album feels a bit like Lana’s brand of like summer fun, and the latter shifts to the political. The first true shift, after “Coachella…”  is “God Bless America And All the Beautiful Women In It,” a song punctuated by gunshots. Inspired by the Women’s Marches of January and the changing political landscape of after the 2016 election, the songs are an album for the first summer contending with President Trump. You won’t find Lana draped in an American flag anymore, but instead singing, ‘is it the end of an era / is it the end of America?’ [“When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing”]

Lust for Life feels like the sort of lazy ‘activism’ that 2017 is all about. Let’s be clear: this isn’t a protest album—it’s just political enough to be relevant, just vague enough to simmer in the background of the resistance. But what the album lacks in urgency, it makes up in intensity; as usual, Lana’s cultivated aesthetic reigns supreme above her message.

It’s important to remember that there’s nothing at really stake for Lana—she can have resistant political opinions, or she can remain blissfully ignorant; either way, we aren’t listening to Lana to get woke or for any pretense of progress. We listen to Lana because she grants us access to a world of glamorous misery, drugs, and truly bad romance, all dressed up in doe-eyed vintage Americana and sultry vocals. It’s hard to look away, even if we know better.

still dreaming about heroin

Lana is undergoing her own sort of awakening, and this is apparent in Lust for Life. This album marks a departure from her romanticized preoccupation with death and tragic love, but her brand of romanticization shifts instead to current events. And she gives it to us in a sepia-toned, Coachella daydream for the first summer of Trump’s America.

You can get lost in her personal reverie about Mustangs, heroin, and freedom, and be gently pulled back in by the soft echoes of “Change,” “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing,” and “Tomorrow Never Came”—the political heartstrings of the record. In “Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind” Lana tells us that “maybe my contribution / could be as small as hoping“—this album is her contribution, and it’s full of hope, if nothing else.

*I’m reading Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, and it’s the perfect literary complement to LDR.

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