“We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me.” That’s the first line that Lana Del Rey sings on her new album, Honeymoon. This, on an album that debuted around the world in Urban Outfitters listening parties. Versions of Honeymoon leaked last week because people secretly recorded it in Urban Outfitters stores; it’s the one place you could hear the record ahead of time. If you’re predisposed against liking what Lana Del Rey does, moves like this are massive red flags. Singing about how loving you is unfashionable when the best way to hear your record is by standing near the speaker by the rack of overpriced plastic sunglasses? When basically everything about you screams “fashionable”? That feels like a troll move. But then again: What does it mean to be a pop star in 2015 in the first place? How do you play around with images and preconceptions? How do you push a specific and personal style to a mass audience that might actually get something out of it? I’d argue that the Urban Outfitters stunt is exactly how you do that. And if you did happen to be browsing for wrap dresses and Sriracha cookbooks in Urban Outfitters last weekend, then you heard an album of surpassing warmth and sadness, a slick blockbuster record both of its time and completely outside of it.
In my experience, Lana Del Rey’s whole project makes a whole lot more sense once you recognize that she’s playing a character and that she’s built a fascinating funhouse-mirror version of pop stardom by exploring all the strengths and vulnerabilities of that character. The Lana Del Rey character is a fascinating thing: a pill-zooted California party girl who drifts into and out of relationships with ruthless, besotted gangsters, who may or may not know that she’s always one bad decision away from having something terrible happen to her. She floats through clubs and dive bars and pool parties at blood-money mansions with an unearthly confidence, sometimes allowing people to sweep her off her feet and sometimes doing the sweeping herself. She recognizes the power of her own sexuality but doesn’t necessarily know that she’s dooming herself to a life of depression and boredom and fear — or, if she does recognize it, she feels powerless to escape it. She sings about mythic, tragic figures like Billie Holiday because she sees herself in them. Martin Scorsese could’ve made a great movie out of that character, but instead, Del Rey inhabits her as a living, breathing entity. When the Weeknd said, in a recent interview, that he was the boy in Lana Del Rey’s songs, and that she was the girl in his, he hit on something powerful — they’re both playing these doomed-romantic characters, finding fame by embodying the fears and longings of those of us who can’t or won’t live like that. Their records are transmissions from a dangerous, romantic dreamworld that only glancingly intersects with our own reality.
The Lana Del Rey character really clicked on Ultraviolence, the masterful album she released last year. On songs like “Sad Girl” and “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” she got deeper into the intricacies of her character than she ever had before. And her potentially disastrous choice to recruit Black Key Dan Auerbach as a producer turned out to be an inspired one; he added light-but-effective Southern-rock grit and grime to her torch songs, lending them a sort of Dusty In Memphis But Also In A K-Hole feel. That feel is gone on Honeymoon. Instead, she’s gone back to a variation on her Born To Die sound — sweeping, orchestral production that nods toward cocktail-lounge music but also to hip-hop. The single “High By The Beach” cribs the oscillating synth from Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” and it also has bass tones that sound seismic when you hear it loud enough in a car. “Religion” has the same combination of dusty guitar-twang and shuffling breakbeat that the RZA has favored in recent years. But then there’s “Salvatore,” a bummed-out aria with a hook that’s half-sung in Italian, or “Freak,” which would like very much to become the theme to the California equivalent of a James Bond movie. “Honeymoon,” the six-minute track that opens the album, is a languid orchestral rhapsody about cruising to the blues and about being okay with “the history of violence that surrounds you”; it might replace “Video Games” as the most Lana Del Rey song that Lana Del Rey has ever sung.
After an album as fully realized as Ultraviolence, Honeymoon can’t help but feel a bit slight. The lyrics on that album artfully pulled apart the tangles of this character’s life. This time, they seem to be dancing along the surfaces of things. Del Rey comes up with a few heavy, resonant images; I love when she describes a girl at a club as “shining like gun metal, cold and unsure.” And on “High By The Beach,” she uses a fierce economy to talk about a relationship inevitably heading for some sort of oblivion: “Now you’re just another one of my problems / Because you got out of hand / We won’t survive / We’re sinking into the sand.” “Salvatore” is pure unflinching melodrama, and she absolutely sells it: “Catch me if you can / Working on my tan / Salvatore / Dying by the hand / Of a foreign man.” But there are some seriously clunky lines here, too, like the bit about “singing soft grunge just to soak up the noise.” It’s funny how, after guitar-rock was an integral part of the musical puzzle on Ultraviolence, it’s a mere lyrical abstraction here: “We could slow dance to rock music.” There’s a moment where Del Rey threatens to “put on that ‘Hotel California,’ dance around like I’m insane,” and I briefly entertained the idea that she was talking about the Tyga album. Because how the fuck do you dance around to “Hotel California”?
The answer, of course, is that you don’t, and that I’m dumb for looking for anything literal in these lyrics. On Honeymoon, “Hotel California” isn’t a song; it’s a construct, a stand-in for feelings of lost, sun-dazed, coke-fueled loneliness. It’s like how, when she’s name-checking Billie Holiday, she’s singing about ideas of glamorous self-destruction, not the actual human being Billie Holiday. And while Honeymoon doesn’t punch me in the gut the way Ultraviolence did, it still works as a long, meditative dip into the aesthetic, and the feeling that those references evoke. The songs don’t always function that well on their own, especially popping up on the internet one at a time the way they’ve been doing in the run-up to the album’s release. But it’s an album with a sense of atmosphere, of vibe, that very few pop singers can hope to equal right now. Lana Del Rey is out here making swooning, languid supper-club fantasias with heavy bass, and she’s making this stuff resonate as pop music, which is an incredible achievement. Honeymoon is just as insular and torpid and stuck in its own feelings as, say, Low’s Secret Name, but she’s doing it on this grand blockbuster-sized level, out in front of everyone. It’s not an album to soundtrack getting high by the beach, even though it would probably work just fine for that. Instead, it’s an album for staring out your window, wishing you could get high by the beach. She ends it by covering Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” as a resigned shrug. She knows she will be misunderstood, and she knows there’s nothing she can do about it. For once, she could be singing in character or as herself.
Honeymoon is out today on Interscope.