“Is it safe? Is it safe to just be who we are?” Lana Del Rey sings on Love Song. It is a fundamental question for an artist whose persona is so thoroughly integrated with her work it is almost impossible to ascertain where the image ends and real person begins.
Yet the over-riding sense of her almost unremittingly sombre sixth album, Norman F______ Rockwell!, is of Del Rey shedding veils of production mystery at the risk of being revealed as just another over sensitive and particularly self-absorbed singer-songwriter.
Elizabeth Grant found fame in 2011 with a name change and touch of Botox, her impeccably staged vintage movie star aesthetic proving an iconic vehicle for highly sophisticated songcraft and production. Amidst some controversy about her image, Lana Del Rey established herself as an icon for the selfie-generation, thriving in the tension created by raw confessional lyrics delivered as dreamily sensuous pop.
The bruised vulnerability she purveyed was confusingly shot through with black humour and dressed up in so much pop-culture irony listeners could never be sure whether she was satirising the state of American consumerism or just trying to disguise the diarising of her own depression. The 14 tortured songs on Norman F______ Rockwell! tend to suggest that there was never really much distance between artist and art.
Featuring her most stripped back production to date, the album closes with a long, winding ballad, Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have … But I Have It. All focus is on her soft, sonorous piano and sensual voice singing about her essential despair (“Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not”).
There may well be a hint of self-mockery when she compares herself to suicidal poet Sylvia Plath “writing in blood on the walls / Cause the ink in my pen don’t work” but the essence of her insecurity is laid out unambiguously: “A modern day woman with a week constitution / cause I’ve got monsters under my bed that I could never fight off.”
The album is peppered with hipster lyrical references to the music scene of Laurel Canyon in the 1970s, explicitly name-checking Crosby Stills Nash and Young, the Beach Boys and the Eagles. But musically a closer comparison could be made to the affecting piano and vocal style of Janis Ian and the late Judie Sill. In demand writer-producer Jack Antanoff collaborated with Taylor Swift on current number one album, Lover, which expertly blends Americana songcraft with the commercial zing of chart pop.
Working with Del Rey, however, the pair seem intent on stripping away all modernity. With barely a hint of hip-hop scruffiness or electronic sheen, Del Rey’s sonic palette has been reduced to old-fashioned essentials: soft piano, acoustic guitar and shades of gorgeous strings, with occasional slivers of reverb-laden electric lead calling to mind the baroque country mix perfected for Glen Campbell in the Sixties by Jimmy Webb.
Hints of live drums arise low in the mix to gently bolster relentlessly plodding mid-tempo rhythms, with looping chords and flyaway notes building towards hypnotic reverie whilst Del Rey sighs in torment and ecstasy. Her voice is soft, breathy and intimate yet emotionally deadpan, relying on melancholy melodies to evoke her perennial mood of numb desperation. She might sound terminally bored if the richness of the music and sharp intelligence of the lyrics didn’t push the songs into deeper spaces.
The standard of songcraft is superb. How To Disappear is a particularly lovely country waltz peppered with clever lines about damaged souls (“All of the guys tell me lies but you don’t / You just crack another beer and pretend that you’re still here”). Del Rey unfailingly comes up with great opening lines, kicking off the album (and title track) with the arresting phrase “Goddamn man child!” in a tender song about her weakness for weak men: “Why wait for the best when I could have you?”
The jokey obscenity of Norman F______ Rockwell! is a standard Del Rey conceit, an off-kilter juxtaposition of rude modernity with the wholesomeness of a kitsch American icon. But the substance of these songs suggests all that archness is so much window dressing. “If you want me without hurting me / You’ll be the first that ever did,” Del Rey sighs on Cinammon Girl, as if expressing gratitude rather than bitterness.
It is a curiosity of Del Rey’s status as a modern pop star with outspoken feminist values that she is unabashed about her own weaknesses. It verges on self-victimisation, her contrasting strength being her determination to sing her own truth, no matter how unpalatable. On Happiness is a Butterfly, which has the form of a jaunty music hall ditty slowed down to a funeral dirge, she sings: “If he’s a serial killer / Then what’s the worst that can happen to a girl / Who’s already hurt?”
If these are the sentiments of the real Del Rey, then it seems hardly surprising that she might have spent so long shrouded in pop artifice. Across 67 minutes of beautiful sad songs, Del Rey lays bare her existential nausea. Ultimately, Norman F----- Rockwell! reveals Del Rey to be something of a one trick pony, and the question for listeners is just how much they enjoy that trick.
It is unfailingly melodious, with a consistent tone of sweet melancholy. But if your attention should drift you might start to wonder whether we really need 14 plodding ballads about the terrible state of Lana Del Rey’s love life.