Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Lana Del Rey Norman Fucking Rockwell!

Lana Del Rey got it before the rest of us did. When Del Rey first showed up on the collective radar, smack in the exact middle of the Obama era, she came off as an actress giving life to a great gimmick — a film-noir starlet adrift in time, floating on Lynchian breezes and midday martini highs and magnificent self-obsession. And even when that persona came attached to a song as great as “Video Games,” plenty of us wanted to dig past it, to uncover the real person underneath. That led to a whole lot of online toxicity about government names and plastic-surgery allegations and news-anchor reactions to Saturday Night Live performances. All of it was stupid, something Del Rey understood better than anyone else.

Flash-forward seven and a half years, and we’re all playing fucking characters. We always were. The news anchor who made fun of Del Rey’s SNL performance got busted for making up an old war story. Del Rey’s persona, it turns out, wasn’t a throwback; it was a canny anticipation of Instagram life, an aspirational vision that trumpets its own emptiness. The deluded self-obsessions and secret perversions of the powerful become a little more obvious everyday, and there’s nothing we can fucking do about it. Ocean levels are rising. The Amazon is burning. We scowl, and we shrug, and we put some angry notes up on social media, and then we go on with our days. Lana Del Rey now looks like a pop seer, a prescient analyst of everything wrong. And while we’ve been catching up to her, she’s been getting better at writing songs, and at broadcasting the elegant doom that she already carried when she first showed up. All that leads up to Norman Fucking Rockwell!, a total stunner of an album that feels perfectly attuned to its moment.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! follows two years after Lust For Life, the album that, at least retrospectively, appears as Del Rey’s attempt to compete in the pop arena. Lana Del Rey is a pop star, but she’s a peculiar type of pop star. She sells records, but she has nothing to do with the pop sphere that surrounds her. She’s a glyph, a ghost. If she’d showed up at the VMAs earlier this week, she would’ve looked like a lost time-traveler. On Lust For Life, Del Rey roped in some extremely famous people: the Weeknd, Max Martin, vague precedent Stevie Nicks. But Del Rey never let any of those voices warp her sound. Instead, she drew them into her world, simply making a Lana Del Rey album that sounded bigger and more expensive than the ones that came before. With Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey goes in the opposite direction. She’s gone into her own space, digging into her own aesthetics and fixations and ideas. She’s made an album of lush, sprawling, psychedelic torch songs — an album that could’ve only ever come from her.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! is yoga music for the apocalypse. It’s music for breathing deep, for coming to terms with the idea that we’re all spinning out of control and into unsustainable chaos. “The culture is lit, and if this is it, I had a ball,” Del Rey sings on “The Greatest.” She is the only person who could get away with singing the phrase “the culture is lit” — maybe because she’s the only one who could use that phrase and imply the general malaise that goes into the sentiment. And she follows that phrase up with this: “I guess I’m signing off after all.” Ted Turner once commissioned a video that would play on CNN in the event of the world ending. Maybe “The Greatest” is Del Rey’s version of that.

Del Rey is an old hand at portraying personal apocalypse, at depicting all the subtle and glamorous ways that we can wreck each other’s lives. She does plenty of that on Norman Fucking Rockwell!. A few seconds in, Del Rey sings one of the all-time great album-opening lines: “Goddamn, manchild / You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you.’” The ensuing song, the album’s title track, is an utterly unsparing depiction of that manchild, of everything that’s wrong with him. Some of her lines on that track are absolute killers, like this: “Your poetry’s bad, and you blame the news.” Or this: “You’re just a man / It’s just what you do / Your head in your hands as you color me blue.” Or this: “You talk to the walls when then party gets bored of you / But I don’t get bored, I just see you through / Why wait for the best when I could have you?” That last bit is the key. Del Rey — or Del Rey’s character, anyway — knows that this man is an absolute piece of shit. But she stays with him anyway, since she wants her own version of that long-promised American dream, in whatever contorted shape it might take.

Again and again, Norman Fucking Rockwell! comes back to that idea — of the corroded American dream, and of the way we’re all ignoring the signs that it was always a lie. Del Rey is seduced by that imagery: “Give me Hallmark / One dream, one life, one lover / Paint me happy in blue.” She knows that putting faith in this “one lover” is the wrong thing to do because it’s not her first rodeo: “If you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first who ever did.” She also knows her own self-destructive tendencies, the ways that she’s helpless to push herself forward into some version of happiness: “I met you on the boulevard, wind through my hair, you blew my mind / And if I wasn’t so fucked up, I think I’d fuck you all the time / It’s killing me slowly.” Because of that numbness, she thinks she’s invincible: “If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst that could happen to a girl who’s already hurt?”

Maybe Norman Fucking Rockwell! is an album about how that idea of the American dream can lead to total numbness, and acceptance of that numbness. Her ideal becomes a life with someone who is similarly numb, rather than outwardly malicious: “I haven’t seen you ‘round here lately / All of the guys tell me lies, but you don’t / You just crack another beer / And pretend that you’re still here / This is how to disappear.” Or maybe it’s an album about learning to accept total doom. “Nothing gold can stay,” she murmurs, echoing Robert Frost by way of SE Hinton.

Musically, Norman Fucking Rockwell! is rich and lovely and assured. Del Rey has been slowly letting its songs out into the world for almost a year now, and together, they sustain a mood even more than her previous records have done. The sound is soft and pillowy and welcoming and rapturous — full of electric guitars and harp-washes and florid pianos and softly weeping strings. One song’s title evokes Neil Young; another’s lyrics namecheck Crosby, Stills & Nash. The sound of Norman Fucking Rockwell! evokes cabaret bar in a lost, half-imagined late-’60s dreamworld, dwelling on that same fragile and hopeful glamor as Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood did. “Manson’s in the air,” Del Rey sang two years ago. Same as it ever was.

Del Rey recorded most of Norman Fucking Rockwell! with noted pop-star whisperer Jack Antonoff, a man who has mostly excelled at rendering his own touch invisible. It’s striking that Norman Fucking Rockwell! is coming into the world just a week after Lover, the blockbuster Taylor Swift album that Antonoff also mostly produced. Even beyond Antonoff, it features the work of a few other recent Swift collaborators, like Louis Bell and Andrew Watt. And yet Norman Fucking Rockwell! sounds absolutely nothing like Lover. It doesn’t even sound like “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince,” the Lover track that almost certainly reflects Taylor Swift’s best attempt to sound like Lana Del Rey. Instead, Norman Fucking Rockwell! sounds like luxurious sprawl — like opium-den music for a Spotify-core age.

It’s ridiculous and fascinating and brave that Del Rey chose to cover Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” a zonked-out and half-rapped bro lament from 23 years ago. Del Rey’s cover is strikingly faithful. It’s not just that she doesn’t change the pronouns. She doesn’t change the proper nouns, either: “Bradley’s on the microphone with Ras MG / All the people in the dance will recognize that we’re well-qualified to represent the LBC.” Will they? And is she? It doesn’t matter. “Doin’ Time,” then and now, is a lovely song. And in Bradley Nowell, the near-death beach-bum Sublime frontman, Del Rey clearly hears a kindred spirit. Maybe Nowell could be the men in Del Rey’s songs — the ones who might like to hold her head under water. “It gets harder,” Del Rey breathes. It sure isn’t getting any easier.

Del Rey’s music is full of quiet stunts like that — quotes, allusions, striking turns of phrase. Seen through blurry vision — the only way to look — they come together to form an entire worldview. And on Norman Fucking Rockwell!, all those sighs and dirges and endless smoke-waft curls lead to “Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have – And I Have It” — quite possibly the finest and most realized piece of work that Del Rey has ever written or sung. Over nothing but Antonoff’s muted, echoing piano, Del Rey — whose voice, it’s worth noting, has grown vastly more agile and expressive over the years — lays out a death-fucked fever dream. She’s been tearing around in her fucking nightgown, 24/7 Sylvia Plath. She’s writing in blood on your walls because the ink in her pen don’t look good on her pad. She’s serving up God in a burnt coffeepot for the triad. She’s calling from beyond the grave; she just wants to say, “Hi, Dad.”

Del Rey released “Hope Is A Dangerous Thing” a few days into 2019, and I’m still not over it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over the rest of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, either. It’s a beautiful opus for a new dark age — a fond look back at the world we just wrecked. Lana Del Rey always knew how fucked we are. And if we’re just catching up now, that’s our fault, not hers.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! is out now on Polydor/Interscope. Stream it below.

Tags: Lana Del Rey