September 2017

Arts & Letters

Torch songs

By Anwen Crawford
Lana Del Rey gets a little happier on ‘Lust for Life’

“Climb up the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign,” sings Lana Del Rey on ‘Lust for Life’, the title track of her new album. “In these stolen moments the world is mine.” The song is a duet with R&B artist The Weeknd, but his mellifluous falsetto, when it appears, lessens the drama. She’s better off alone.

Since her breakthrough six years ago with the single ‘Video Games’, the American singer and songwriter has evinced a gloomy, glamorous fatalism that feels much more aligned with the values of Classical Hollywood than with our own time. She carries herself like Lizabeth Scott, one of Hollywood’s great femmes fatales, who played a torch singer several times. (Too Late for Tears, Scott’s best-known noir, might as well be the title of a Lana Del Rey song.) Del Rey understands, as did David Bowie before her, that pop music is as much a visual as an audio form, and her songs, like his, often seem to be fantasies of film acted out by an aspiring lead.

There is no suddenness in the movement of Del Rey’s music and no hurry in its pace. Her favourite tense for lyrics is the present continuous, a narrator’s tense, which tells of temporary things. “Swinging in the backyard / Pull up in your fast car / Whistling my name,” she sang on ‘Video Games’, and you knew – would have known, even without the song’s darkening string section – that she wasn’t singing of a love built to last. The accompanying film clip, which Del Rey directed herself, featured the Hollywood sign, B-list stars behaving badly, and Del Rey lip-syncing to camera like a nervous ingenue at her first screen test.

‘Video Games’ gave the sense of a young talent unlikely to survive, and perhaps not wanting to survive, her encounter with the machinery of showbiz – or even of a ghost returned from some forgotten cultural artefact to warn us of her destiny. The album that followed that song, released in 2012, was called Born To Die. It went platinum worldwide. Then came Ultraviolence (2014), and Del Rey’s aesthetic, along with her popularity, appeared fixed.

But what about her trajectory? Was she really as doomed as she seemed? Like many myth-making performers before her, Del Rey had something of a false start. A debut album, Lana Del Ray – note the variant spelling – was released in 2010, but quickly pulled from distribution. Her real name is Elizabeth Grant. There were mutterings, as there always are with women pop stars, of powerful men behind the scenes. Perhaps others were scripting her part and drawing the benefits: cash for misery.

If Del Rey’s angst was an act, then she played it to the hilt. “I wish I was dead already,” she told the Guardian in 2014, a comment that earned her a public rebuke from Frances Bean Cobain, daughter of the late Kurt Cobain. “I’ll never know my father because he died young, and it becomes a desirable feat because people like you think it’s ‘cool’,” Cobain tweeted. “Well, it’s fucking not. Embrace life, because you only get one life.”

Cobain had a good point, but it’s worth bearing in mind that her father, because and not in spite of his suicide, is treated like rock music’s own holy saint. It’s trickier for sad young beautiful women, who – it is assumed – have nothing to cry about, or only cry over silly things. And if Del Rey’s sadness was exaggerated, well, we all do things like that, fictionalising ourselves even to ourselves. “I’d be lying / If I kept hiding / The fact that I can’t deal,” she sings on Lust for Life’s ‘13 Beaches’, as if to remind her doubters that happiness, too, can be a fake.

Yet something has shifted. A few more colours have appeared on the horizon. ‘Love’, the album’s opening ballad, sounds like a benediction delivered to listeners who, like Del Rey, inhabit a world that can feel haunted by a better past. “Look at you kids with your vintage music,” she croons, “Coming through satellites while cruising.” Her reverb-soaked vocal (Del Rey has always brought Roy Orbison strongly to mind) is accompanied by a sonorous bassline, which is shaded in turn by a touch of vibraphone. And the stately mood brings other musical precedents to mind: Dusty Springfield, LaVern Baker – even Stevie Nicks, who also guests on this album.

Del Rey freely plunders the whole history of American popular music, though for the purpose of pastiche rather than fastidious re-creation. She glues her finds together without much fussing about anachronisms; part of her point is that you notice them. ‘Video Games’ had its lineage in the jazz-age torch song, but sub bass from an 808 drum machine boomed through the arrangement, and the string section was computer-generated. Likewise, there’s a silvery synthesiser embedded in ‘Love’, and some squeaking, treated effects that dust the song with a little digital magic. “You’re part of the past but now you’re the future,” she continues, in the first verse, counselling those kids to look in both directions at once. The historical overlaps that Del Rey makes obvious in her songs set them apart from the work of a thousand other, more strictly retrograde musicians.

A case in point is one of the strongest tracks on Lust for Life, ‘Summer Bummer’, which features rappers A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti. A sharp, programmed beat is set against the song’s doleful piano part, and at first the two guests can only be heard in wordless snatches, which are chopped through the mix for texture. “Hip hop in the summer,” murmurs Del Rey on the chorus, moodily. “Don’t be a bummer, babe / Be my undercover lover, babe.” It’s Raymond Chandler meets the dance floor.

After that, Lust for Life hits a rote patch. ‘Groupie Love’, which also features A$AP Rocky, is in Del Rey’s well-practised self-effacing mode (“It’s so sweet, pouring you a drink”), while the clumsily titled ‘Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind’ is one of her most overt but least successful attempts to yoke her vintage interests to the 21st century. The Californian music festival already makes strenuous efforts to position itself as a contemporary version of America’s long-gone counter-culture, and so Del Rey’s song (“I was at Coachella / Leaning on your shoulder”) sounds more like an advertisement than anything more thoughtful. As an ersatz version of the ’60s, the album’s cover shot – Del Rey in a cream-white dress, with artificial white daisies in her centre-parted hair – is much more interesting. The vibe is backwoods beauty queen on the run to hippie San Francisco, but the styling is too spruce and the colours are oversaturated; it’s 1967 through an Instagram filter.

Del Rey smiles beatifically in that photograph, and there’s some oddity in the fact that she has leant towards cheerfulness at this moment – of all moments – in America’s history. “Is it the end of America?” she asks on ‘When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing’. That seems a pertinent question to be asking right now. But her answer is not what you might expect, at least not from her. “If we hold on to hope / We’ll have a happy ending,” she sings, and she appears to mean it, delivering the lines in her highest, breathiest register, free of the dark ironies that often shade her alto range. The problem is that she sounds oblivious to the real world, even careless of it. Likewise, her number with Stevie Nicks, ‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’, is self-absorbed from its title onwards.

The last three songs on Lust for Life are a return to more overcast territory, and on their evidence it seems that despondency suits Del Rey best, after all. ‘Heroin’ is haunting, its arrangement minimal yet melodious; it is an ode to addiction that also feels like an elegy for those lost to it. ‘Change’, a piano ballad, is reminiscent of the smoky-voiced Cat Power at her sparest and most melancholy. ‘Get Free’, the album’s final track, alludes to and then refutes the vaudeville standard ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows’: “Their arches are illusions,” sings Del Rey. The song ends with the sound of birds – remember how Judy Garland once sang, in another song, of the birds that fly over the rainbow? Dreams really do come true, she told us, and that sentiment became part of Garland’s tragedy, because the dream factory broke her. At least the Hollywood sign exists. Might as well cling to it.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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