Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lust for Life | Lana Del Rey



If there were ever a pop star to release an album titled Lust for Life, American singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey would seem to be the least likely candidate. Her earlier major label work, housed in the gloomy debut record Born to Die and full-length follow-up Ultraviolence, depicted life's most unspeakable and undesirable topics through song and video: suicide, assassination, prostitution, addiction, abuse, gang activitydrug manufacturing. She was, as a Rolling Stone reviewer once said, one sad tomato – but a popular one, she became.

The golden standard for a new classic archetype, Del Rey boomed as a bad girl. But as her brand grew, her lack of comfort was magnified. In the eye of her debut's storm, she performed a good deal of her live gigs on her knees in jeans and a crew neck sweatshirt, keeping her eyes locked on the ground in front of her. Going as far as once saying that she wished she were already dead to avoid having to continue in the limelight, Del Rey raised points for concern in her first few years as a mainstream musician.

Yet she has managed to grow into herself and her fame, coping with its reality with an elusive, if not nonexistent, public image and intermittent social media presence. The "gangster Nancy Sinatra" of 2012 was replaced with a nostalgia-saturated, authentic singer-songwriter quite quickly, making Lana Del Rey a mere name change for Elizabeth Grant instead of the separate persona she was originally groomed to be. She overcame critics' initial distaste and has since gotten them to eat from the palm of her hand, owning her on-stage presence and crafting a template for a generation of alternative pop artists to follow.

She built a career on being an all-American old soul then settled on becoming a comfortably familiar parody of herself to sustain her position. On her second and third albums, Ultraviolence and Honeymoon, she doubled down in melancholy and flowery language. And without the context of the full tracks they represent, the 16 song titles on Lust for Life seem to follow that trajectory – stitching them together, one may take an educated guess that this album is another look into toxic relationships and unshakable addiction, part autobiographic and part fantasy-based.

Though Del Rey has been too tangled in the thorns of unhealthy relationships with men (and with herself) for three albums to look outwards, something has shattered the importance of her small, turbulent world: the current federal administration. Life in Trump's America inversely affected her craft, now void of fantasized disaster and saturated, idealistic visions of 20th century Americana. No longer touting the American flag as a prop of pride and freedom, she extends "God Bless America" with a crucial em dash that reflects a political charge: "– And All the Beautiful Women in It."

"Life rocked me like Motley, grabbed me by the ribbons in my hair," she sings on "Heroin." On the six-minute track dressed in opiate metaphors, she realizes past ignorance to the real world and advocates for self-care and inadvertent protest through finding bliss in the darkest moment in modern America. After pondering whether we are faced with the end of America on another cut, she soothes herself with the thought of feigned ignorance: "When the world was at war before, we just kept dancing." And throughout Lust for Life, she provides the distraction that many Americans crave.

Contrary to her introductory stance that we were all born to land ourselves six feet under in the end, she paints daily life and love in a positive light for the first time. On lead single "Love," for example, she realizes her influence in glamorizing sadness and empowers fans with a timeless projection of love as a boundary-defying, all-healing element in life – a far stretch from her past philosophy that "sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough." While unexpected features from A$AP Rocky (on two tracks) and Playboi Carti make for the album's most heavily produced, least articulate moments, "Summer Bummer" in particular highlights Del Rey's newfound sunny, carefree nature.

Her cheery disposition isn't consistent – she and Stevie Nicks flow through the self-explanatory but gorgeous "Beautiful People Beautiful Problems," and "13 Beaches" revisits Honeymoon's wish for solitude as a celebrity – and there are times when her efforts to change her ways falter – "White Mustang" is Lana Del Rey at her most Lana Del Rey on this record, for better or for worse. But when happiness prevails, it's juxtaposed with Rick Nowels' production, which stabilizes Del Rey's sound in the same cool world as its predecessor. Lust for Life chisels away any excess lusciousness from its sparse organic base and spikes it with trap beats and electronic clips as needed. The soundscapes are designed to highlight her signature breathy highs and smoky lows – the same vocal techniques that many record executives told her ditch but attracted millions of hipster-chic listeners.

With a title that falls in line with her reputation as the staple anachronistic figurehead in viral pop music, "Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind" makes a seemingly adventurous reach to connect her generation's premier festival to the psychedelic storm that forever changed counterculture's prominence in sociopolitical movements. But in line with the rest of the record, it represents Del Rey's overarching goal to promote awareness of the world's real problems through music – and to encourage her followers to find time to flee into happiness within personal lives rather than vicarious sadness through her own overwrought stories of inevitable doom and woe.

The success of her image reversal relies on the integrity of Del Rey's authenticity. Despite the smile plastered on her face, Lana Del Rey still feels like Lana Del Rey – a happier, more optimistic one who has just entered a new chapter of her life. In doing so, she adopts a socially responsible view of her and her music's place in the grander scheme of the world, realizing she can shape pop culture present, not just wander through the memories of pop culture past. While she's still an escapist with a limited vocabulary of poetic language, she now wears the title to ignore a real-life disaster, not to dream up an imaginary one to transcend ordinary life. And it's this unspoken appreciation for everyday life that shows sincerity in her lust for it.

Lust for Life is available now under Interscope Records.

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