If nothing else is true of Lana Del Rey, it’s that the deeper she is shoved into the centre of the pop-cultural zeitgeist, the more she seems removed from it. While 2012 LDR was, by all means, a trailblazer, 2019 LDR sees her seldom setting trends and certainly not following them, and maybe that’s why the sun-drenched, sea-breezed and incredibly biting Norman Fucking Rockwell! is her best album to date. It was an album with a messy rollout, with rumoured release dates being pushed further and further back, and singles being released almost a full year in advance. But, the finished product is a powerful ode to California, an ode to her self and an ode to the future – however bleak it may be.
She’s come a long way from her hopelessly romantic debut, and opening track – which is also the title track – is her strongest to date. “Goddamn, man-child/You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you’,” are brave and brazen lyrics to open an album with, but it’s a lyric that almost leaves you winded with its immediate impact. Deeply relatable and stripped of all bullshit, Del Rey is fed up – in her brooding, soothing way.
There are plenty of those punchy lyrics spread throughout the album. The oozy, heartbreaking first single ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ gave us the exasperated “can’t a girl just do the best she can?”, the powerful “if you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first who ever did” in ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and the depressing ‘Happiness Is A Butterfly’ line “if he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst / That can happen to a girl who’s already hurt”. Lyrics have always been Del Rey’s strength, and producer Jack Antonoff – who is most recently known for his booming synth-pop production for Taylor Swift – has given her words the utmost respect. Del Rey tiptoes between hopeless realism and fantastical love in a way no other contemporary can, and each side – like devils and angels upon her shoulder – is incredibly authentic to her.
The swooning, predominantly beat-less album flows on beautifully from song to song, but it undoubtedly hits its peak upon ‘The Greatest’. Released just before the album’s drop alongside the freeing ‘Fuck It I Love You’, ‘The Greatest’ is the peak of Lana Del Rey’s artistry. A sweeping, sunburned “so long”, Del Rey looks back onto shore fondly but with a longing for escape as well. “The culture is lit and if this is it, I’ve had a ball/Guess that I’m burned out after all” she sings, pondering her role in the pop culture wildfire. Her celebrity is one that is truly hers and hers alone – being a defining voice of the decade but remaining alternative, and it sounds like she’s had enough or that there’s nothing left for her to give. She mentions former friend Kanye West with a searing “blonde and gone”, referencing his recent actions and how he’s still referred to as ‘the greatest’ in certain spaces. It’s both an ode and obituary to the City of Angels and the blaze that rages within it.
But the album comes to an abrupt halt upon closing song ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it.’ It’s a sparse, quiet moment, but its power and its message scream louder than any song that preceded it. She has never breathed so much emotion into her lyrics as she has here. She performs that tiptoeing act again but realises she doesn’t have to choose. “You ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not/But at least I can say I’m not sad,” she sings in the song’s chorus. It’s a liberating realisation that Del Rey can find comfort in her conflicting emotions and that it’s a universal conflict that everyone feels. The entire album is one of self-assertion and also one of dismay, but this deeply intimate closer shows how the two can co-exist, waltzing with one another as fires rage on around them. We don’t have to understand it, but it would be best if we accepted it.
As Del Rey sings the song’s delicate title for the last time, it sounds like she might burst into tears. She might not fully believe that she has this hope she sings of, but she’s going to sing it anyway – because what’s the point of weathering a wildfire if you’re not going to hope for rain?
‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ is out now.