To put all the waves upon waves of Lana Del Rey backlashes and frontlashes into proper perspective, let’s all try a thought experiment: Imagine what might’ve happened if Fiona Apple, the closest cultural antecedent for LDR’s first few singles, had emerged in the blanket-coverage internet age. Superficially, they’re ridiculously similar. Both of them land a little too closely to the standards of beauty of their day. (Not to make light of eating disorders, but excessive skinniness was the ’90s equivalent to lip injections.) Both are unsteady live presences; remember the noise surrounding Apple’s Roseland meltdown? And both made excellently languid fucked-out early singles that touched on ideas about obsession and sex-as-transaction. Unfortunately, with Born To Die, we’ll soon find out what might’ve happened if Apple had given us “Shadowboxer” and “Criminal,” and then the rest of Tidal had been fucking bullshit.
Because Born To Die is bad. It’s really bad. It’s bad in ways that “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” and even “Born To Die” in no way predicted. Plenty of people were suspicious of Lana Del Rey from start, but those early songs have a trashy, glamorous power that makes them stand out starkly in the context of the rest of the album. Other songs try that same combination of sex and regret, but they do it with all the subtlety of a cinderblock to the face. (On “National Anthem”: “Money is the anthem / God, you’re so handsome.” Yeek.) Most of the songs are just hideously under-written. The hooks are gone. The tempos rest on weird cheap electro beats that sound too cheap and too expensive all at once. Those tinny canned orchestral strings are on every song, and they don’t exactly find anything new to do. Neither does Del Rey’s persona; with bonus tracks, the songs come off like 15 different variations on a drunk chick at the bar trying to convince someone to come home with her. There are isolated moments that sound like they could’ve been something more; “Dark Paradise” and “Summertime Sadness” at least hint at the syrupy majesty of “Video Games.” But the whole thing is just a godawful mess.
Listening to Born To Die, it’s tempting to put forth theories on what happened. If LDR was a talentless major-label plant from the start, then “Video Games” probably wouldn’t have had the stylish panache that it did. And if her whole enterprise was hopelessly calculated, then she would’ve had more songs that actually worked. It’s worth noting that the production on all the newer songs is both more expensive and more hackneyed than what we hear on “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans”; it’s almost as if her Interscope overseers tried to recreate those songs over and over without actually figuring out what made those songs so compelling.
My own hypothesis, though, is that she needed more time to figure out her voice. It’s common knowledge, at this point, that Lana Del Rey is Lizzy Grant’s invented persona, an entirely new character that she created when her own music didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s sort of a Slim Shady/Eminem situation, then. But when “Video Games” hit as hard and as early as it did, she suddenly had to rush out an album, and she didn’t have the luxury of figuring out the different directions that this character could go. Maybe she’ll figure it out eventually. After Born To Die, though, I’m not hopeful. As Scott pointed out in an email, she should just go ahead and change her name again once this album bricks.
But hey! New Fiona Apple album this year! That’s something, right?
Born To Die is out 1/31 on Interscope.