Pop

Lana Del Rey’s ‘Norman F*cking Rockwell’ Is A Sprawling California Masterpiece

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F*ck is a word Lana Del Rey knows well. Intimately, even. The expletive is littered all throughout her discography, casually, like she barely notices when it creeps into the slipstream. Like she’s your man. But then: “F*cked my way up to the top,” she sneered in 2014, mimicking the misogynistic cultural assumption that a female pop star without a man behind her must’ve had one between her legs. Or, fans have long treasured the unrecorded alternative lyric, “Let me f*ck you hard in the pouring rain,” regularly trotted out during live versions of “Born To Die.” Ephemera, the explicit version — this is what makes us girls. Sylvia Plath, uncensored. But Lana learned to replace a philandering poet-husband with a manchild who f*cks (press play on the title track), so I think she’s safe for now.

Things aren’t any different on Norman F*cking Rockwell! — punctuation is ironic, natch — even if the album title presents problems for old-world traditionalists like The New York Times (and well, this website), who print it as a blank, a choice both surreal and puritanical, and one that probably makes Lizzy Grant cackle with delight. The f*cks don’t end there, though. “Fresh out of f*cks forever,” she croons on her latest album’s introductory and most emblematic track, “Venice B*tch,” because the swears are coming in two’s now. When this song announced a new Lana album was poised to arrive late last fall, I felt all Scissor Sisters: It can’t come quickly enough, and actually stayed up late watching for a surprise drop for a few Thursday nights after. Should’ve known, Lana would be languid. Lana takes her time. Lana f*cks. She’s your man.

But the space between last September and this one left room for the kind of revelation that elated every LA indie head worth their salt: LDR is a Weyes Blood stan?? “You are an endless source of inspiration to me, and I’m super grateful for your music,” Lana captioned a blurry Instagram clip, taken from the middle of the crowd at Natalie Mering’s Titanic Rising release show in early April. I’ve written elsewhere about why that record was my album of the year (also garnering the praise of Mitski, if you don’t trust me and Lana), but the thought of our Venice b*tch writing a record while steeped in “Bad Magic” and “Movies” was the kind of kismet that only comes around when the world is ending, or close to it.

Maybe it took us critics until the year the world fell apart to give Lana her due. So be it. Even if Lana Del Rey has been making stone-cold classics for the last seven years, and the musical industrial complex was just too busy or self-satisfied to notice, the shift on Rockwell is still palpable. On her fifth major label release, Lana masks existential crises in sprawling psychic hymnals full of California dreams. This is a woman at the top of her craft, not on top of the world, and the dissonance between those two plot points is, ultimately, spellbinding. Rockwell is full of songs that span the hushed intimacy of CSNY sessions and a few spiked with the bleary, dark-road neon of the ‘60s — or there’s always “Venice B*tch,” a behemoth that contains both.

There are other songs on the album — other great ones! — but this is the kind of song that only comes along once or twice in an artist’s discography, so I don’t want it to go unsung. For all the “Brooklyn Baby” types who hum that lullaby as they stumble off the L into the cocoon of Bushwick, “Venice B*tch” is representation for the burnt-out stoners who left New York in a huff, only to calm down, getting high by the beach. Lana, of course, relates to both – as do I — which makes both sides of the coin beloved. But we all know who gets more airtime, so to get a record so deliciously, completely, devotionally wrapped up in Los Angeles is a quiet victory for the best coast.

Between privileged millennial coast jumpers, an old adage is often quoted: Stay in New York too long you get too hard; stay in LA too long you get too soft. Here, we’re getting Lana soft as warm sand, and frankly, Rockwell doesn’t suggest the need for a return to New York steel. As if to prove just that, “F*ck It, I Love You,” rounds out the word’s prevalence, in Lana’s best, softest usage to date; another stream-of-consciousness ballad, all the more precious because of its aimless, exasperated declarations. Her stunning, straight-faced Sublime cover, “Doin’ Time” also suggests that a revisionist history of trashy and beloved West Coast cult acts isn’t beyond the realm of the imagination.

Rockwell is a batsh*t, burner-beauty, just like the Los Angeles it worships. “Mariners Apartment Complex” manages to make love mythological and mundane all at once, between Lana parting the sea to save a manchild’s boat, and her invocation of Leonard Cohen (rest in peace, legend), it’s a love song full of feminine power that’s still anchored in longing. (You took my sadness out of context). If you listen carefully, you can hear how Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” fits perfectly into the pre-chorus here. Catch a wave and take in the sweetness; live while you cannnnnn. If Brandi’s Grammy success is prescient of Lana’s, well then maybe 2020 still has the possibility of being a good year.

On a record that seeks to honor the unabashed normalcy of illustrator Norman Rockwell, who imbued his work with quiet activism all along, but was, rather famously, dismissed by critics as too sweet and wholesome to be a serious artist, the f*cks will keep Lana safe from that. But the basic b*tch aesthetic of her Instagram (Easter brunch! Indie shows! Bouquets with her bffs!) suggest she might relate to Rockwell more than her earlier, oversexed pin-up image might have suggested. And just when it’s tempting to write her off as basic, she adopts the dissonant, disjointed harmony style of freak-folk lifer Little Wings, stretching out the syllables of “California” like vocal fry might undercut the song’s ultimate desolation.

If “California” is a lifeline that’s just as likely to go unanswered, and “Love Song” is about the way bodies speak better than music, then we needed a dash of pure, doe-eyed Lana debauchery to round it all out, and “Next Best American Record” delivers — with a party in Topanga Canyon, no less. I half expect this song to come on during Sharon Tate’s vinyl-listening sessions in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Same goes for “The Greatest,” which channels the kind of apocalyptic delight that Tarantino movies burn for fuel. Last year, Lana was borrowing lyrics from Ye (“they mistook my kindness for weakness” paraphrases a line from “FourFiveSeconds”), here she’s lamenting his loss: “Kanye West is blonde, and gone.” Where, our discourse-loving peers would ask, is the lie?

And if, despite all this and every shred of evidence to the contrary, Lana still has hope? Then f*ck it, I do, too.

Norman F*cking Rockwell is out now via Interscope. Get it here.

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