Tuesday, September 17

Album review: ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ is Lana Del Rey’s subtle evolution into striking realism


(Courtesy of Interscope Records)

(Courtesy of Interscope Records)


“Norman Fucking Rockwell!”

Lana Del Rey

Interscope Records

Released Friday

This post was updated August 31 at 10:42 a.m.

Contemporary pop music producer Jack Antonoff is a modern day Santa Claus – the release night of every album or song he’s worked on feels like Christmas Eve.

Thursday night was no exception.

After nearly a year of eager anticipation, Lana Del Rey finally released her much-delayed album “Norman Fucking Rockwell!,” which Antonoff co-produced. Fans clearly weren’t disappointed – in Santa Monica, hundreds of Del Rey devotees queued up outside the local Target to pick up physical copies of the album, almost like children rushing down to the Christmas tree come morning. And some things are worth waiting for: Antonoff’s pitch perfect production paired with Del Rey’s stripped back and forthright, plain-spoken lyricism work to create an album unlike anything the singer’s released in her recent discography.

Perhaps it’s the long, unprecedented holdup for the album that makes “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” such an exciting release: Del Rey released the lead single, “Mariners Apartment Complex” nearly a year prior to dropping the album. Month after month, fans waited and waited for something to cling onto: another single, album art, a tour announcement, anything to signal that more music was coming soon.

Finally, it came.

The album’s first couple of singles – namely “Venice Bitch” and “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it” – were admittedly a bit of a bore compared to Del Rey’s wider discography. At first listen, they almost felt like unfinished demos – they had that dreamy, meditative sound so characteristic of Del Rey’s work, but the production was a bit plain, skeletal even. However, while the songs weren’t the greatest indication of what was to come, songs such as these served to showcase Del Rey’s shift toward a more mature musical aesthetic.

Listeners of Del Rey’s earlier work could easily reduce her persona to a number of different archetypes – on “Ultraviolence” she was the sad, “Valley of the Dolls”-esque Hollywood starlet, while on “Honeymoon,” she masqueraded as a lustful beach bum. But as “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”’s lead singles display, Del Rey is difficult to pigeonhole because she’s not playing a character anymore – she’s just herself.

On the nearly 10-minute track, “Venice Bitch,” Del Rey croons about life with her current lover over a nostalgic, ’70s-inspired acoustic guitar riff, lending the song a sort of psychedelic-Americana vibe. As she climbs up the scale vocally on the line “You’re in the yard, I light the fire,” her voice becomes just a touch breathier, quieting down on the following lines, “And as the summer fades away, nothing gold can stay,” mimicking that passing season.

But while the first five minutes of this track are dreamy and resplendent, the latter half of it draws on and on with repetitive, whistling synth tones and excessively melodramatic strings carrying out the remainder of the song.

This repetition comes at no surprise since one common complaint that casual listeners of Del Rey have made over the years is that her songs all sound the same – and this is a somewhat fair critique. Her albums, “Ultraviolence” and “Honeymoon,” can be indistinguishable at times, as they tend to deal with the same, overplayed, picturesque themes.

But much of “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” exemplifies Del Rey’s new sound, as frenzied yearning is lyrically concealed through nonchalant coolness, a departure from the 2012 Del Rey who once referred to herself as “fucking crazy.” Not to mention, the bare-bones, keyboard-heavy instrumental of “California,” among others, helps to further differentiate the track from somewhat over-produced work, like 2017’s “Lust for Life.”

On “California,” listeners hear Del Rey lamenting a lost relationship, telling an old friend – perhaps something more than that – to “hit (her) up” if they ever happen to be visiting California. The cool and casual language she uses thinly veils her desperation – she could crack at any moment, and this human level of vulnerability is a fresh and novel concept in her body of work.

Another standout on the record is “How to disappear,” in which she sings about an emotionally unavailable romantic partner; the track feels almost like a follow-up to 2012′s “Video Games.” A steady drum beat and strings accompany Del Rey’s powerful, yet clearly tired and exasperated vocals – while “Video Games” naively romanticizes the lack of emotional reciprocity, “How to disappear” is a much more mature take. Simply put, it’s a more realistic and relatable feeling.

And that’s the core of “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”‘s message: Del Rey is a vulnerable being, no longer the femme fatale character she’s played in the past.

Not only is Del Rey’s lyricism also more honest and explicit than past releases, but Antonoff’s stellar production skills bring an entirely new musical aesthetic to the table. While Del Rey’s jazz and blues influences are evident in much of her early discography, the sort of honky-tonk, twangy piano chords on the title track “Norman fucking Rockwell” are new territory for Del Rey, whose music has most prominently featured synthesized strings and guitars.

Antonoff has helped artists evolve their musical aesthetic time and time again – the more mature, pop-driven sound of Lorde’s “Melodrama” and the dark, electronic sounds on Taylor Swift’s “reputation,” were both major shifts in the vocal artists’ overall sound that he helped spearhead.

However, Del Rey and Antonoff’s latest project is a much more subtle evolution. With Del Rey’s early sounds, from the dramatic timbre of her voice to the obsession with the American dream, remaining present on the album, Antonoff simply re-manipulated these influences to create a more honest and distinct body of work.

Ultimately, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” represents a refinement of Del Rey’s theatrically dreamlike sound, and with another new album already in the works, hope might not be such a dangerous thing for us to have after all.

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Quad editor

Warner is the editor of the Quad. He was previously the assistant editor for the Music | Arts beat of Arts during the 2017-2018 school year and an Arts reporter during the 2016-2017 school year.


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  • Kanishka Mehra

    hot take