lana del rey norman fucking rockwell review
Lana Del Rey / Interscope / Universal
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Highsnobiety

5.0/5.0

Remember the first time you heard “Video Games”? Looking back, more than just a flawless ode to drunken love and intoxicating men, it was a perceptible shift in pop music history. The glass-smooth contralto vocals, the swaying melody, the simple piano riff—when was the last time you heard a song like that on the radio? Even the title was brilliant, incongruous with the mood of the song, as if the singer were being beamed to us from an era before video games even existed. We were too close to it to see it at the time, but straight out the gate, that song perfectly illustrated the genius of Lana Del Rey.

In a mainstream music industry landscape that completely devalues singer-songwriters unless they peddle the most basic, Ed-Sheeran-common-denominator-Discover-Weekly saccharine pap, Del Rey has successfully gamed the system: she’s a pop star that sings rock songs (or a rock star that sings pop songs, depending on your own definition of those genres), filling a massive gap in contemporary music culture, with songs so casually self-aware that they seem almost scientifically calibrated to excite and inspire her peers. In nine years and six albums, Del Rey has gone from an unknown, struggling artist, to overnight sensation, to now, a bonafide cultural phenomenon—and even when it seemed like her career was perhaps taking a detour through murky, post-Born To Die waters, it’s now crystal clear that with Norman Fucking Rockwell!, every step of her journey has been by design. Not only has Del Rey proven that she is a genuine visionary, she has also positioned herself as one of the most important pop songwriters currently alive.

The first inkling that Norman Fucking Rockwell! was going to potentially set itself a cut above Del Rey’s already stellar discography was when “Venice Bitch” was released last fall amid a cavalcade of critical fanfare and internet acclaim. A nine-and-a-half-minute flurry of country guitar-picking, heart-melting orchestral strings and Del Rey’s signature lilting vocal phrasing, it sloshes and heaves like a summer storm, its various suites rising and swelling into lush peaks and valleys. It’s unlike anything Del Rey had recorded up to that point, and not just for its romantically searing lyrics and technical prowess. “Venice Bitch” encapsulates two very important and complementary elements that are integral to Del Rey’s persona: first, she is a classic California bombshell, hair piled high and smoke from her legal joint curling around her pouted lips, her only real cares seeming to be muscle men and their muscle cars; secondly, she is an elder millennial in 2019, well aware of the fatal moral failings of her country, taking stock of her life and of those around her with an air of mild cynicism and a vague sense of humor. “You’re beautiful and I’m insane/We’re American-made” she purrs during the verse, through waves of reverb. This has always been her message, but the sheer comprehensive magnitude of the ideas behind Norman Fucking Rockwell! underlines it with an incandescent Fourth of July sparkler. The woman we call Lana Del Rey has always been a fantasy, an avatar, a mirror reflecting back what America wishes to see through her art. It’s just never been as deliberate, succinct, and downright enjoyable as now.

After all, everyone from Miley to Madonna have had their stars-and-stripes, ever-cowgirls-get-the-blues, Americana moment, but what Del Rey has cultivated over the past decade amounts to something more detailed, introspective, overarching and sincere. Only she would dare cover Sublime, a band that is pretty much universally reviled outside of Southern California, and then have the audacity to knock it out of the park like she does with “Doin’ Time.” On “Fuck It I Love You,” she infuses the slightest Valley Girl twang into her voice during the chorus, playing with the illusion of wanton vapidity, a trope California girls have had to battle since time immemorial. The fact that Del Rey actually isn’t from California is completely irrelevant—Bowie wasn’t really from Mars, Dylan wasn’t really a cowboy, why should Lana Del Rey remain a suburban girl from upstate New York?

Much ado has been made about the album’s title track opening line, mostly because it’s perfect. “Goddamn manchild/You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you’” could be the “You’re So Vain” of the 21st century, a dickpunch a certain type of American male who seems to be stuck somewhere between fuckboy and incel, and for all his woman-bashing, only has his sexuality to offer. Del Rey is far from the first pop star to use the virgin/whore paradigm to her advantage, but like with everything on this record, it’s the details that sets it apart—every single line is it its place, without an inch to spare. Through singing about purportedly superficial pop themes typically frowned upon by “serious” artists, she’s realized that the only way effective way to comment on America’s hypocritical morality is to subvert it with irony, and it works. Trump is President, billionaires keep making their billions, and our parents’ generation, the ones who sold us their cowboy hats and hot dogs have all but washed their hands of our future. This is Norman Fucking Rockwell!, and if you dare step out of the painting’s gilded frame, best of luck to you.

So fuck it, right? Go to Venice Beach and pose for with the bodybuilders. Stay up till dawn singing sad karaoke songs in a neon-lit dive bar. Get drunk and the midnight show of your local drive-in. Del Rey’s America is the only one worth living in, and her depiction of it is one of the reasons she has struck such a chord with her generation, and why her music taps into a shared dreamlike melancholy that seems both titillating and ominous. The most iconic artists of any era are the ones who are able to create their own realities through their music, and with Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey has unequivocally entered into that pantheon.

Listen to Lana Del Rey’s ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ here. For more of our album reviews, head here.

Words by Cameron Cook
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