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Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell!

Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell!

Hype or no, art or artifice, it’s nonetheless well worth the experience.

Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell!

4.25 / 5

The idea of Lana Del Rey has essentially willed itself into being, sticking to the basic concept from the start and waiting for the rest of the world to not only catch up, but fully embrace the fabricated persona created by one Elizabeth Woolridge Grant. It’s a classic Hollywood story (or perhaps method acting in the extreme), the character so fully inhabited as to have essentially erased the erstwhile Lizzy Grant; it’s Norma Jeane Mortenson disappearing completely into Marilyn Monroe. In other words, it’s about as American as it gets, making Norman Fucking Rockwell! the perfect title for the latest Del Rey release. Norman Fucking Rockwell! takes the very idea of wholesome Americana to the extreme, interjecting an expletive and adding a declamatory bit of punctuation in case the point wasn’t already none too subtle.

Fortunately, it’s not merely an eye-rolling attention grab as Del Rey here fully delivers on the long-gestating promise of her sultry-but-damaged Hollywood ingenue/torch singer persona, crafting an album of pure Hollywood excess in the classical tradition. The aural equivalent of a studio system-era epic, everything about Norman Fucking Rockwell! is maximalist in approach. Each track is built like a sprawling city, layer upon layer comes together to create a massive whole that, while recognizable as individuals (strings, saxophones, plaintive guitars, pianos, etc.), are taken in as a whole; a ten thousand-foot view.

“Venice Bitch” adds layer upon layer, building and building into something that borders on disorienting, ebbing and flowing, consuming itself. Both traditional and very much a product of the 21st-century pop world in which it was constructed, the 9-and-a-half-minutes-plus epic rolls on and on, the lyrics almost irrelevant as Del Rey softly coos a semi-autobiographical litany of the mundane and deeply personal (“You write, I tour, we make it work”). It does nothing if not take its sweet-ass time getting anywhere. And “Venice Bitch,” like Del Rey herself all over NFR!, is in no hurray to get anywhere. Each track rolls along as if in a dream, a fantasy world designed that, while ostensibly rooted in the reality of modern America, transcends and expands to absurd proportions anything even remotely close to the reality most of us experience.

“Fuck It, I Love You” is another example of past and present coming together to create an note-perfect amalgamation of high and lowbrow art, borrowing from the Great American Songbook (“Dream a little dream of me/ Make me into something sweet”), filtering it through the narcissistic lens of the social media generation. She continues this idea with a cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” copping the opening line and melody of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” descending into something more surrealistically hip hop-influenced, the antithesis of traditional 20th-century Americana. It’s an establishing of a new norm, claiming the melting pot approach of pop music in the 21st century as this generation’s Great American Songbook, its references and influences rooted in a post-modern approach to art in all its forms.

Throughout, her voice remains breathy and favoring the high end of her range, making for an almost monotonous listen in terms of the lack of stylistic vocal variation. However, it adds a hypnotic effect throughout that causes the listener to drift off between couplets only to be drawn in by a choice phrase or casual expletive. Nowhere is this more effective than on closing track, “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It.” A hauntingly elegiac piano-and-vocals-only ballad, Del Rey’s raw emotion and clever wordplay are on full display: “I was reading Slim Aarons and I got to thinking that I thought/ Maybe I’d get less stressed if I was tested less,” she sings in the song’s opening moments.

NFR!, like everything else in her increasingly impressive creative output, is West Coast-centric. California dominates the album thematically, lyrically and, most blatantly, in the song titles (“California,” “Venice Bitch,” etc.). It plays as though the aural equivalent of a hallucinogenic, prototypical experience in all its dirty, depressing, beautifully idealized glory. Full of characters who chronically name-drop and subsist on area-specific allusions (nearly every Laurel Canyon luminary seems to get named-checked at one point or another throughout the album), NFR! is at once hypnotically gorgeous and maddeningly vapid, everything we’ve come to expect from the Hollywood machine. And yet, like that machine’s cinematic output, we simply cannot look away, coming back time and again to be entertained. And Norman Fucking Rockwell! is nothing if not entertaining in that most Hollywood of ways. Hype or no, art or artifice, it’s nonetheless well worth the experience. Whether or not it manages to stand the test of time remains to be seen.

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