Critical Voices: <i>Norman Fucking Rockwell!</i>, Lana Del Rey

Critical Voices: Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey

By:
09/13/2019

Introspective and immersed in nostalgia, Lana Del Rey’s sixth studio album Norman Fucking Rockwell! (2019) does not reflect a specific era—it captures a feeling. Infused with images and memories of California, the album exemplifies Lana’s ability to transcend genre and allows listeners to glimpse a more tender, vulnerable side of her character.   

Lana Del Rey’s artistic momentum fluctuated severely following Ultraviolence (2014), yet her latest album marks a turning point in her musical career. Honeymoon (2015) is a slow and distant record which garnered much critical acclaim but almost no radio play. Likewise, Lust For Life’s (2017) fast-paced tracks and high-profile collaborations ultimately felt like an inauthentic overcorrection. In this new 14-track LP, renowned musician and producer Jack Antonoff adds structure and direction to Lana’s signature sound. This is unsurprising as Antonoff has worked on some of the best-selling pop albums of the past decade, including Lorde’s Melodrama (2017). While Lana’s sonic aesthetic has lent itself to expressive yet meandering ballads in the past, this record has an unmistakable sense of movement.  

Norman Fucking Rockwell! features a melodic journey that underpins its emotional narrative. Lana acknowledged the album’s cohesive soundscape in an interview, claiming the record was “without any one particular big song.” Instead, each track has its standout moments, like the grand ricocheting intensity of the chorus of “The Next Best American Record.” Others, like “Happiness is a butterfly,” build with a bare piano’s quickening chords and Lana’s doubled vocals, while songs like “Fuck it I love you” oscillate between a lofty chorus and a lyrically rhythmic decrescendo. All masterfully executed, every song ebbs and flows, the album surging and receding like the Pacific surf.   

The first and title track, “Norman fucking Rockwell” begins with a biting line delivered over laxly tumbling piano chords: “Goddamn, man-child / You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.’” Despite its ire, the lyricism is playful and full of self-aware wit. While the song is about an unhealthy, emotionally taxing relationship—a theme common throughout Lana’s discography—she adds a sense of distance. Instead of dulling the emotion, this reflective outlook allows her to include more thought and perspective in her storytelling. 

“Mariners Apartment Complex” establishes Lana as the savior rather than the victim in her relationship. In a song that builds from strumming acoustic guitars to a sweeping string-filled chorus, Lana defiantly rejects the typical perception of herself as a troubled girl. Yet, what “Mariners Apartment Complex” builds, “Venice Bitch” deconstructs. A nearly ten-minute track, the song deviates from its conventional form before the 3:30 mark. Gentle, floating memories of simple love give way to stark, experimental tones racing over choked guitar chords, fading in and out. This song introduces the listener to the album’s theme of nostalgia, transforming into an unfamiliar sonic whirlwind after Lana sweetly sings, “Nothing gold can stay.”

The following tracks continue this ethereal California odyssey. A more traditional Lana tale of unrequited love, “Fuck it I love you” presents a cathartic release in its titular lyrics. As the sliding pitches from “Venice Bitch” re-emerge, she uses this song to speed up the pace of her album with a rhythmic pre-chorus, bridge, and outro, singing, “California dreaming got my money on my mind.” It’s miraculous that a cover of Sublime, a California-based ska band, fits into this record, but “Doin’ Time” capitalizes on this change in tempo to transform into a hazy, thematically dark summer ballad.

The middle of the album consists of three tastefully understated tracks. One of these, “Love song,” was the first Lana wrote for the album with Antonoff. Its warm chords and earnest request to “be my once in a lifetime” show a refreshingly tender side of a singer who sees her own happiness as a point of vulnerability. Her decision to showcase this results in an angelic ode.    

“California,” “The Next Best American Record,” and “The greatest,” serve as powerful ballads for the album’s elongated climax, each one featuring an intense nostalgia. In “California,” Lana spearheads an attempt to salvage a relationship, a sentiment similar to that of “Mariners Apartment Complex.” The pre-chorus ascends and descends melodically. Finally, the song opens into a sweeping chorus of heavy strumming and prolonged synths while she promises to take a former lover on a tour of California, through their favorite memories. The sonic power of the chorus juxtaposes strongly against the futility of her plan. Repeating the past is impossible, but it won’t stop her from trying to do so in order to fix the present.

Lana fondly reminisces about a time of perceived invincibility on “The Next Best American Record.” The sultry and impassioned chorus makes it one of the standout tracks on an album filled with many unique, atmospheric songs. Echoing percussion surrounds Lana’s admission: “You make me feel like there’s something that I never knew I wanted.” 

Slow electric guitar backs “The greatest,” a reflection on the past imbued with tragedy. This track brings new, uncomfortably real meaning to the ominous “nothing gold can stay” of “Venice Bitch.” While the song opens with some recurring nostalgic elements, its real focus is on euphoria’s collapse. A melancholy guitar riff and Lana’s vocal passion manage to make “I’m wasted / Don’t leave I just need a wake up call,” one of the most heart-wrenching lines on the entire album. 

Norman Fucking Rockwell! elegantly draws to a close with its last three songs, all almost entirely instrumentalized on piano. These tracks do not lose energy, but rather transform the record’s momentum. Culminating in “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it,” Lana makes a welcome return to a familiar voice airing her internal struggles and troubled past. After 13 songs granting listeners the privilege of hearing her deepest yearnings and fondest memories, she closes out the best album of her career with a nuanced message of defiance. At the end of an album focused on the past, Lana Del Rey finally braces for her future.

Voice’s Choices: “Mariners Apartment Complex,” “The Next Best American Record,” “The greatest” 

 

About Author

Skyler Coffey

Skyler Coffey is the Voice's Halftime Leisure editor and Lana Del Rey beat reporter.


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