When Lana Del Rey first emerged as the carefully-crafted alter ego of Lizzy Grant, she did so in a haze of vintage-filtered melancholia which soon became a signature. Her bee-stung lips, backcombed hair and obsession with old Hollywood served as the perfect visual accompaniment for songs about affection, sadness and, of course, video games; critics and fans alike were quickly captivated.
As interest swelled around the star’s public persona, praise soon gave way to unnecessarily personal criticism. Some speculated on her mental health, others delved into her family history to apparently ‘expose’ a privileged upbringing, whereas many more were quick to label her inauthentic – an ironic, amusing argument which completely misses the point that a handful of the most iconic musicians perform their persona on a daily basis. Still, Del Rey’s own self-curated universe was disarmingly consistent, and fans quickly became obsessed with her unique brand of cinematic sadness, perfectly encapsulated by the title of her debut album, Born To Die.
Now, six years later, the dark cloud has lifted. After five years and four official albums (one of which was an expanded re-release), this cycle of sadness has come full circle with a new album, surprisingly entitled Lust for Life. The star has been teasing information over the past few weeks, describing a body of work more rooted in stripped-back, acoustic soundscapes and '60s girl-group harmonies.
Features on the album will include Sean Lennon and Miles Kane of The Last Shadow Puppets, as well as longtime collaborator The Weeknd, who features on the album’s title track. Only two songs – "Lust for Life" and "Love" – have been released so far (though a third, "Coachella," may make its way into the final cut), but all signs point towards an LP rooted in themes of peace, hope and optimism. Not only is this unusual for Del Rey, whose early releases were non-ironically dubbed ‘Hollywood sadcore,’ it’s especially anomalous in a political climate which has seen countless stars suddenly become #woke.
In a world where brands still market the idea that Kendall Jenner can end police brutality with nothing more than a light refreshment, Del Rey’s approach to social commentary is both refreshing and important. Half-baked political slogans are increasingly cropping up in music videos, ad campaigns and designer collections; activism sells. Instead of incorporating heavy-handed statements into her music, Del Rey has created a unique storyline for her new album rooted in hope and escapism.
The visuals for the first single "Love" embody this perfectly; in the clip, the star sways to her own rhythm with a smile on her face, soundtracking a journey to a youth-driven planet characterized by affection and intimacy. The daisies strung though her hair are a seemingly deliberate reference to the flower child movement and the seminal photographs of peaceful protest in the 1960s that now seem more relevant than ever.
Then, there is the captivating album trailer, which sees the star residing in a creative sanctuary right in the middle of the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign. The two-minute clip takes aesthetic cues from films like The Love Witch and The Witches and is soundtracked by a lengthy monologue which explains Del Rey’s process of deciding how best to tackle the current political climate in her new work.
This was a subject she touched on personally when she tweeted that she would be performing witchcraft against Donald Trump, but one which she also covered in a recent interview, admitting that Lust For Life would be “a little more socially aware – that’s kind of a global feeling.” She alludes to this in the trailer, eventually settling on the conclusion that “sometimes, just being pure of heart, having good intentions and letting them be known is the most worthy contribution an artist can make.”
This desire to create an album rooted in messages of peace and optimism appears to have resulted in a clear new chapter of Del Rey’s career. Although not exactly up-tempo, the two official singles released so far indicate a new sound steeped in soft coos and saccharine backing vocals; the singsong repetition of “don’t worry baby” peppered throughout "Love" is a hypnotic reminder of music’s ability to uplift.
This is a new beginning which the star seemingly acknowledged herself in a press release accompanying "Love," which read: “I made my first four albums for me, but this one is for my fans and about where I hope we are all headed.” Del Rey has spoken of this album as a gift to her audience, which perhaps explains why she’s just stepped away from the introspective, often controversial lyrics which have sparked debate in the past.
Still, the star is nothing if not self-referential. The boyfriend she sings of in "Lust For Life," who is “back and cooler than ever”, also appears in a "Brooklyn Baby" lyric: “My boyfriend’s pretty cool, but he’s not as cool as me.” In "Love," she seemingly acknowledges her own influence on today’s pop music industry, singing: “Look at you kids with your vintage music / Coming through satellites while cruising.” Not only is it a reference to the Tumblr-induced wave of nostalgia that characterizes a generation fascinated by the past, it’s a nod to the influence of Del Rey’s brand of self-styled vintage.
Lust For Life seems to be, in many ways, the antithesis of Born To Die: somewhat paradoxically, in a time of political turmoil, Del Rey has broken with her own melancholia to create work which uplifts youngsters bombarded daily by news of global injustice.
Whether the remaining songs on Lust For Life will continue this streak of optimism or not, Lana Del Rey has demonstrated a more innovative, less obvious way of working social commentaries into her music. Instead of relying on simulated protests or inflatable politicians, the star has fixed her gaze firmly on a new generation of youth increasingly thinking about the world in a progressive yet pragmatic way.
This is crucial not only because creativity can provide much-needed escapism, but because Del Rey’s own attitudes towards death and depression have been widely-discussed (some might say exploited) by journalists. A Guardian profile of the star led with the headline: “I wish I was dead already,” a deliberately controversial pull quote which cemented her reputation as the poster child of sadness.
The omnipresence of her lyrics on social media shows that young fans relate to this sentiment; mental illness is on the rise, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Not only does Lust For Life break this cycle of melancholia, it sends a message of peaceful resilience whilst tackling the so-called “tumultuous period” in a way which is subtly political, yet beautifully restrained.
Now read our review of Miley Cyrus’s “Malibu”.