Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell!

Lana Del Rey
Norman Fucking Rockwell!
(Polydor Records)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Great title, isn’t it? Lana Del Rey telegraphs pretty well what you can expect on her sixth album with that handle, telling you that you’re going to get her own sarcastic, tortured version of the American Dream. Del Rey has a knack for making things sound romantic and doomed all at once, and this album presents a fine distillation of those strengths.

Del Rey switches it up a bit in terms of her collaborators this time around. After Rick Nowels had served as her co-writer and producer on much of the material from her last two albums, Jack Antonoff steps in on Norman Fucking Rockwell!. There is perhaps a bit more musical variety on this album than on previous efforts, although the album’s second half mostly returns Del Rey to her fallback setting: quiet chords, open spaces, hints of atmosphere, and vocals that come on spaced-out but then hit you hard when the emotions poke through.

The title track begins the journey behind some loose-limbed, Fiona Apple-style piano, Del Rey throwing shade at her wannabe poet boyfriend with the killer putdown: “Why wait for the best when I could have you?” Therein lies Del Rey’s secret weapon: Even when tracks don’t connect as a whole, there are always incisive individual lines that work well even beyond the context of the songs that contain them.

Del Rey occasionally stretches out tracks with long instrumental passages on songs like “Venice Bitch” and “Doin’ Time” that don’t really add much to the overall picture. But there are also moments on this album where she tightens up and displays some of her finest songcraft to date. The slinky waltz “How to disappear” ties together several vignettes into an overall narrative of absence in plain sight. And “The Next Best American Record” contrasts a nostalgic, softer section with the present day, where the tempo picks up even as the joy in the depicted relationship seems to empty out.

Other highlights include the blasted-out power ballad “The greatest,” where Del Rey hits both coasts and mines them for every last bit of decadence and decay, and “Bartender,” which references the “ladies of the Canyon” and fittingly drops in some Joni Mitchell-esque chord changes. She leaves nothing behind on the closing track, the poetically heavy “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have.” When she admits in the song’s final moments that she indeed has secured that elusive emotion, it’s hard to know whether you should cheer for her or pity her.

Del Rey has certainly carved out her own niche in the world of singer-songwriters, much as the quasi-namesake of Norman Fucking Rockwell! did in the art world. This shows her refining that approach, adding a few new brush strokes here and there, but still providing a unique and fascinating tableau as a whole.