Album Review: Norman Fucking Rockwell // Lana Del Rey

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It’s taken Lana two years to capitalise on the ideas that started to emerge from 2017’s Lust for Life, the album that grounded the singer-songwriter in complex, sophisticated thinking but would also see a smile debut on the cover of an album. On the first run, it’s hard to spot exactly where one album ends and the other begins. Resolute and optimistic, outro ‘Get Free’ seems to flow quite naturally into 2019’s effort ‘Norman fucking Rockwell’. But that’s where the similarities end. 

I don’t want to make the case that the last two years have somehow overhauled the way Lana makes music. Fundamentally, it’s still songs for the heartbroken and the depressed, written in the style of William S. Burroughs and sang like Nancy Sinatra. And yet, Norman Fucking Rockwell shows a new dimension of the Lana aesthetic, one that achieved something significant with Lust for Life and now has to work out what to do with it. 

Fundamentally, it’s still songs for the heartbroken and the depressed, written in the style of William S. Burroughs and sang like Nancy Sinatra.

There’s a kind of linearity to the new album that I didn’t pick up on before. Born to Die was revolutionary at the time, but only felt connected by a few vague themes — wealth, excess, distraction, hopeless romanticism… The new album wipes the slate clean and aims to spell out some character development from start to finish. It’s not always clear where things are going, mind. Lana’s use of irony layers otherwise simple emotions and scenarios with complexity, only to shrug it off with a kind of “well that’s just how life is.” It’s not always obvious what you’re supposed to be taking seriously. The album opens with “you fucked me so good that I almost said I love you,” and the unexpected vulgarity makes you think it’s a joke. And then, a few songs later, Lana pulls back with “Fuck it I love you” and you realise it wasn’t. 

I think the standout change for the album is the move towards a more introspective, self-critical songwriter, less fixated on questions of identity and more with the shape of broader existence. Lana is still battling apathy, but seems reluctant to give in to performance without purpose. Rhyming ‘art deco’ with ‘ghetto’ and ‘cinnamon’ with ‘ritalin’ gave a nice shape to previous albums, and tastefully managed the two aesthetics through simple juxtaposition. But Norman Fucking Rockwell has to take it a step further.

It’s a different kind of comparison that Lana wants to draw attention to: “paint me happy in blue Norman Rockwell” seems to acknowledge and accept existential complexity in simple, everyday American life. “Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon, know-it-all” takes a jab at some ‘goddamn man-child’ but speaks volumes about our singer, who herself “fantasised about Laurel Canyon” and its ties to 60s/70s counter-culture in a Dazed Interview two years back. Life is complicated, it says, hypocritical even, but there’s not much that can be done. 

The songs themselves are good, though it’s hard to pick out clear chart-toppers as in Born to Die or Ultraviolence. There’s a moment of repetition in ‘Fuck It I Love You’ that could have fit nearly into an Ariana Grande song, but seems instead to indicate a moment of poor judgment as Lana trusts infatuation over reason. The songs go back and forth in this internal conflict between head and heart,  not leaving time for anything too stable or decisive. A hook feels like a big commitment in the midst of an album characterised by being a bit all over the place.

The album works well in its own context. Breaking off ‘Fuck it I Love You’ with a cover of Sublime’s ‘Doin’ Time’ sets up ‘Love Song’ to be soul-crushing. I don’t think the song would have the same effect without this constant emotional flux running through the album. Moments of bliss and reconciliation are overshadowed by these occasional cold, centred moments, and just as “I’m a fucking mess, but I…” tails off, the mood changes before there’s time to think too much into it. 

“Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not / but at best, I can say I’m not sad” rounds off the album, and it’s hard to speculate how we’re to feel about this. Is ‘happy’ the goal, or has the narrator accepted that that’s perhaps not the point? “Nothing gold can stay” she alludes, and one has to question if that’s really such a problem. Norman Fucking Rockwell brings a solemnity to Lana’s music that is getting harder and harder to brush off. A wholly captivating effort, the songwriter has delivered an interesting thesis of anhedonia in the modern age, apart from the trends of modern pop, and is willing to concede that she doesn’t have all the answers herself yet. A grand but understated gesture of individual composure and reasoning, Norman Fucking Rockwell takes Lana’s discography another step forward back into the unknown. 

Words by James Reynolds
@JimReynoldsUK

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