Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

Lana Del Rey - Born To Die

Current media sensation Lana Del Rey just released her fatalistically-titled album Born To Die at the end of January and she’s riding high on a lively worldwide wave of hype and backlash, with her album debuting at #2 on the U.S. Billboard chart and at #1 on the U.K., Irish, and French charts.

Contrary to the reactionary rumors found online, Lana didn’t just appear out of nowhere as a “manufactured product” by a record label.  She’s paid her musical dues over the years, playing shows in the U.S. and Europe and digitally releasing an album titled Nevada, under her given name, Lizzy (Elizabeth) Grant, on Five Point Records in 2010. Around that time period, Lana switched management and, having drawn up a different plan towards musical world domination, she requested that Five Point Records withdraw that album from circulation.

Whatever the circumstances have been in Lana’s rise to fame, all that doesn’t detract from the captivating quality of the songs on Born To Die.  Lana engagingly segues from world-weary balladry to lyrics-heavy pop numbers while seamlessly incorporating elements of classical music and hip-hop, bridging a pretty wide gap between symphonic pop and soft rap.  Is this groundbreaking?  Is this daring?  Lana pulls it off so naturally and easily that it doesn’t sound unusual or seem up for debate.

Lana’s style is nouveau-retro – catchy pop songs and longing, melodic balladry dressed with melodramatic flourishes of symphonic strings and hard-smacked hip-hop beats and exclamatory male vocal motifs.  Even if the songs were stripped of their sonic wardrobe, Lana’s alluring, sing-talking vocals would still be the focal and selling point.  Lana employs disparate vocal styles (reminiscent of Beth Gibbons’ different vocal incarnations on Out Of Season), depending on the intent of the song.  She can switch from girlish, carefree charm to resigned poignancy at the drop of a hat, sometimes even within the same song.

Lyrically, Lana creates iconic snapshots through short-hand cues that clue the listener in to universal emotions and pop culture references, locations, and imagery.  On “Blue Jeans”, when she casually posits “Blue jeans, white shirt…” and “James Dean”, the picture emerges instantaneously: she’s in “forever love” with the cool, doomed outsider.  And that’s how the story goes…  The sentiments on Lana’s songs are strong – they’re all-or-nothing, whether the theme is about love, life, death, or money.  An overwhelming idealistic to fatalistic romanticism colors Lana’s lyrics (Take, for instance, the line “We will be in love forever.” from “Diet Mountain Dew”) on relationships, be it first love, last love, or “forever love” – the feelings are endless, boundless, and will always exist (Take, this time, the line “Heaven is a place on earth with you.” from “Video Games”).

On the lyrically-contemplative album opener “Born To Die” Lana sings with a grave finality on the verses, sounding as if she’s grown weary of this earthly toil as she achingly intones “Take me to the finish line.” against a cinematic panorama of strings and clanking metal beat.  The chorus surges forward with an expressive crest of strings, Lana’s higher vocals, and a more intense mechanical beat, lifting the song from its doldrums.  Lyrically, the mood is at first regretful about the hardships of living, but Lana’s words become vibrant during the chorus, revealing that “The road is long / We carry on / Try to have fun in the meantime.”

Next number “Off To the Races” is all about having that fun as Lana drops phrases like “gold coins”, “cocaine heart”, and “Cristal” in a girlish coy intonation amid a swaggering, clacking hip-hop beat.  Although the song leans heavily in the hip-hop direction, there’s still a hint of strings in the background that give it a vintage vibe.  A prevalent theme of Lana’s, that of the “All-American Girl”, also surfaces, with references to red nail polish, a white bikini, and a blue pool.

The lyrics-centric story-telling “Blue Jeans” slows it down a bit with a deliberate, but swinging beat as Lana delves into a relationship where the guy is a “Big dreams / gangsta…” and the girl wants him to stop living that lifestyle.  Midway into the song the pace speeds up and Lana crams in a lot of lyrics, keeping the rhymes tight and the emotions high, until it dissipates into a dreamy chorus with Lana proclaiming “I will love you till the end of time.”

YouTube über-hit “Video Games” follows with a measured tempo and a subdued Lana quietly bathed in melancholy, emotionally rosebud-soft, rewinding through a relationship, lingering over her memories, and pensively stringing out her sing-talking vocals on the verses.  Tinkling plucks of harp, piano, and strings accompany Lana and build up by the chorus, as she wears her valentine heart on her sleeve, declaring “It’s all for you / Everything I do.”

True to its name, “Diet Mountain Dew” is sparkly and refreshing with a light piano refrain played against a shaking hip-hop beat.  Lana comes on like a coquette in “…heart-shaped glasses…”, swaying and sighing in a sing-song, little girl tone “You’re no good for me” and then quickly countering with a vixenish “I want you.”

On the brash “National Anthem”, a hip-hop infused pop number that could qualify as Top 40 hit if the pop chart stars are aligned for Lana, she ups the attitude, playfully pattering in a mock-innocent voice that “Money is the anthem of success.”  Lana throws in references to the Hamptons, diamonds (In a nod to All-American Girl Marilyn Monroe?), and “red, white, and blue”.  Compared to the crisp demo version, this song sounds slightly dampened and needs more sonic punch, which is a shame, because it’s a super-sticky track.

Lana becomes mournful on “Dark Paradise”, wistfully sing-talking “You’re face is like a melody / It won’t leave my head.” as the ubiquitous strings and mechanical clacking beat blueprint start to become a little too familiar.  “Radio” is another slice of symphonic balladry with a flat-smacked beat, but it’s a delight because of Lana’s initial alt-country vocal take, the sweetly dreamy chorus of “I finally found you.”, and the occasional, unexpected drop of the F-bomb (Gotta keep it real…).

By the end of the album an instrumental sameness pervades the tracks, with the “under construction” percussion becoming too workman-like, making it difficult to distinguish between the tunes.  “Carmen” is a bit of a stiff slog, with sharply awkward lyrics and an unwieldy build up on the verses, but the chorus reaches the level of a darkly hopeful stage number, with too-precious vocals, orchestral maneuvers, and triangle tings.  The lax pace continues on the jazzy torch song “Million Dollar Man” as Lana, in the spotlight, layers together smoky, expressive vocals, piano notes, and extended strings, opining to an imaginary audience “Why is my heart broke?” and “I’ll follow you down, down, down.”

The death knell crawl of “Summertime Sadness” is a downer, but Lana’s shivery, resigned vocals of “Kiss me before you go.” and briefly sped-up chorus spells elevate the track, if only for a few fleeting moments.  Before the final curtain comes down, Lana waxes philosophically on the demise of youthful female friendship at the expense of chasing love on “This Is What Makes Us Girls”, explaining that “We all look for heaven and put love first / Something that we’d die for…”

The special edition of the album contains three bonus tracks, “Without You”, “Lolita”, and “Lucky Ones”.  Each has its own merits and could have made the cut and added some variety to the album.  “Without You” starts with a delectably breathy, light-toned Lana basking on the Riviera, in front of the cameras, asking “Am I glamorous?” (Well, it’s more of a statement than a question), but admitting that although she has it all, “I’m nothing without you.”

“Lolita” should have been a keeper, and it is in its demo form, but this studio version scrubs the bright, sassy, 50s feel and instead adds a threatening, reverberating noise and a torpid beat that overpower Lana’s winkingly flirty vocals as she exclaims “Hey, Lolita, hey / I know what the boys want / I’m not gonna play.”  The old-time vibe continues with “Lucky Ones” as Lana sings in a light, yearning, but restrained tone amid wavering, whirring noises, measured metallic clangs, and gentle symphonic strings, warbling “Finally you and me / are the lucky ones this time.”

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