Fly Me, the new novel from GQ editor Daniel Riley, takes place in a tiny Southern California beach community where seemingly everybody is either a stewardess or a drug-runner. Its heroine is a recent transplant who’s both a stewardess and a drug-runner. It’s 1972, and everyone in town is doing their best to shut out anything that might harsh their collective high: Vietnam, Watergate, the planes being hijacked out of the sky every week, the general sense that the ’60s are over and a darker time is here to stay. It’s a story about people moving around in a self-imposed haze — knowing, on some level, that it can’t last, but wanting to stretch it out as long as they can anyway. The utopian rituals of a few years earlier have started to curdle and rot; they’ve become mechanized indulgences, things that you do because you don’t know what else to do. And you can probably already guess where I’m going with this, but almost every page of the book made me think of Lana Del Rey.
Four albums in, Del Rey has a Thing, an idea that she pursues no matter what’s going on. She’s interested in secret sadness, in the sort of ennui and desperation that can come when you live in the sun and indulge every whim. It’s music about sex and drugs and longings and nostalgic reveries for times that we don’t remember and anxieties creeping in to destroy the little bliss-bubbles that we’re working so hard to create for ourselves. And Lust For Life, Del Rey’s new album, represents the moment that she lifts her eyes to the horizon and starts to realize that there’s a world out there, that the bubble can’t last. “Manson’s in the air,” she coos, evoking the general-consensus historical moment when the ’60s ended. “Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind” finds her stuck on that same 1969 summer, on what was supposed to be magical about it, briefly losing herself at the spectacle of a hundred thousand kids with flowers in their hair before waking up to scary news about North Korea, not knowing how to process it. “Is it the end of an era?,” she quietly murmurs to herself later on. “Is it the end of America?”
If you’re looking to Lana Del Rey for political statements, you are looking in the wrong place. But there’s something stirring about that creeping sense of unease — a feeling more nebulous than the “I think my boyfriend has a gun”-type stuff that past Del Rey albums have conjured. At this point, you’re either in or out on Del Rey. Her sleepy-voiced lost-generation torch songs drive a whole lot of people nuts; I’ve heard people call her “boring” in just about every conversation I’ve ever had about her. But if you tap deep enough into what Del Rey is doing, the “boring”/”not boring” distinction becomes a false binary. Del Rey’s music is about capturing a mood — a complex, varied, cinematically bummed feeling. Her music exists at the place where bliss and dread and indolence and depression all intersect, where the sight of the sun setting over the ocean becomes somehow oppressive and where the drugs are just starting to not work anymore. She’s doing her own thing, and she is doing it exquisitely. If you’re bored listening to her, it’s because you can’t — or won’t — lose yourself in her sound, which is slow and samey and turgid and almost objectively gorgeous. And if you can’t get into that headspace, who knows, maybe you’re better off. Go ride a bike or something.
Lust For Life is Lana Del Rey’s version of an A-list pop album, with a big budget and big-name contributors. Del Rey herself gets a production credit on every song, and longtime associates like Rick Nowels and Kieron Menzies worked on almost the entire album with her. But people like Max Martin, Benny Blanco, Boi-1da, and Metro Boomin also have their names on the album. Still, listening to Lust For Life, you can’t tell. There is no radio-play thirst on the album. Instead, the sense is that Del Rey has taken all these in-demand professionals and drawn them into her orbit. There are trap drums and slick production effects all over the album, but they never take up more space than the weeping strings and florid pianos. And maybe that’s a testament to how strong and malleable those Del Rey torch songs are: They can nod toward trap and pop without ever interrupting her own pillowy, Lynchian flow.
On Lust For Life, she casts the same spells that she always does, and she never really leaves her aesthetic no matter who might be on a song with her. When A$AP Rocky shows up for a couple of songs, he’s merely a pleasant voice, filling space. Playboi Carti does ad-libs — something he does far better than rapping — on “Summer Bummer,” and it’s almost like he’s just another part of the rhythm track. Formative influence Stevie Nicks gets to play grand-dame on “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems,” but she’s really just there to portray an older, still-unchanged variation on Del Rey’s persona. The Weeknd is one of the biggest pop stars on the planet right now, but on the title track, Del Rey reduces him to a mere supporting player, just as she does whenever she shows up on his records. In fact, the only guest who really leaves much of an impression is former Cibo Matto bassist Sean Ono Lennon on “Tomorrow Never Came,” where he makes the truly bizarre decision to give a straight-up lunchtime-at-a-casino impression of his own father. I have paid money for Sean Lennon’s music in the past, and I can’t remember him ever sounding like John. Here, on a song that directly evokes his parents by name, he sounds eerily similar. It’s weird, and I wish I hadn’t heard it.
Lust For Life has its problems, “Tomorrow Never Came” probably chief among them. The album is too long, which is just something we’re going to have to accept from almost every big star in the streaming era. It has lines that fall flat. It never again equals the heights of “Love,” its deliriously gorgeous opening track, which might be the best song Del Rey has ever sung. But Lust For Life does what a Lana Del Rey album is supposed to do. It calls up those images of, as Del Rey herself sings, “movie stars and liquor stores and soft decay.” It depicts love as a zero-sum game, a cynical and destructive pursuit where everyone ultimately loses: “I’m crying while I’m cumming / Making love while I’m making good money / Sobbing in my cup of coffee because I fell for another loser.” “I’m feeling all my fucking feelings,” Del Rey laments at one point, and the album serves as a sort of rallying point for everyone who knows how she feels. It makes depression sound glamorous and glamor sound depressing. “I don’t belong in this world, that’s what it is / Something separates me from other people,” Del Rey coos. She’s singing about feeling alone in the world, but she’s also singing something perfectly true about where she stands in the pop-music universe. There’s nobody else like her, nobody else who can make you feel like you’re high by the beach in 1972, slowly working through the pile of money you got for smuggling a brick of cocaine into JFK in your carry-on bag. Maybe that’s not a feeling you need in your life. But then again, maybe it is.
Lust For Life is out 7/21 on Interscope.