Back when I was a kid, it was an accepted truth for the kind of movies me and my friends loved, that if the critics hated it, it was good. Action movies, y’see. Not held in high regard in the mid-90’s. Considering the mixed-to-negative reviews I’ve read about Lana Del Rey’s amazing album Born To Die, I’m leaning towards this still holding some truth, at least when it comes to pop music.
There are quite a few things about Born To Die that can be criticized, but above everything else it is a very powerful and atmospheric, consistent pop album. Unlike the trite and tiresome mass of soulless, shallow pop music, there is both vision and talent in here as well as good taste. And good songs.
Roughly put, the songs on this album can be divided in two groups: the melancholic, wistful and sad songs on one hand, and the decadently indulgent songs on the other. It’s true that many of the songs repeat the same themes almost to a fault, but on the other hand, Lana Del Rey manages to create a sufficiently new spin on the same theme in most songs to keep things fresh. It is also true that the production on the album is at times rather massive and even suffocating in all its bombast and drama, especially when it remains so for much of the album, but again things remain breathing enough to keep things from going over that fatal edge.
What makes this album float where so many other albums sink, is the seemingly instinctive ability to tap the collective pop culture/reference memory of the 20/30-something generation(s) through the lyrical imagery she uses, and also set iconic and immortalized scenes and pop culture archetypes to song. Many of the songs tap into some movie or TV series, or scene from such, in a way that makes the listener instantly understand the setting of the song, but still keeping things vague enough to make the songs more than mere pale reflections of iconic moment of popular culture from the last five decades. Off To The Races, for example, reeks of the elegance of old James Bond or Audrey Hepburn movies but with an unwholesome, decadent spin of shyster characters and a definite twisted sexual undercurrent; it’s all class, but also corruption and rot under the surface, the sinful pleasure of corruption. On the other hand, opener and title track Born To Die is the ever modern theme of desperate young lovers at the end of a romantic but violent (either literally or figuratively) road movie, gunning for the finish line with failure close on their heels. Sort of like in True Romance, although that movie had a happy ending (of sorts). Everything is saturated by a warm, nostalgic and wistful melancholia, like Lana Del Rey were the narrator of a movie looking back on what might be a tragedy or the love story of the centuryM Lana Del Rey’s delivery leaves the question hanging. The slightly over-saturated, warm colors of the cover of The Paradise Edition match the atmosphere of the music perfectly; it’s all covered in that glow of nostalgia for things we’ve never really experienced but still know intimately.
The lyrical themes circle around, surprise surprise, love and romance most of the time. There are pop culture references aplenty, from James Dean and Mountain Dew to modern bling bling fashion, but below the superficial namedropping the deeper strains show, in my opinion, a deeper understanding of the recurrent themes and emotions that have never gone out of fashion since Jimmy Dean rode off into the sunset (or, one could argue, since Juliet and Romeo lost each other). One of my favorite references is the not-so-subtle nod to the classic ballad Why Do Birds Sing in the song Radio. The delivery betrays a mastery of the art that seems almost casual. The lyrics hide more than a few impressive moments, with the amazing Dark Paradise as the brightest moment. It’s a song of clichés, of oft repeated and regurgitated platitudes… but then, the crushing sorrow of losing a loved one often feels just like that. That’s the genius of it, really; recognizing that sometimes, clichés and platitudes are apt and straight to the point, instead of lofty and high flying but ultimately reality-detached and hollow turns of phrase.
Del Reys’ rich voice, at the same time delicate and powerful, expresses the emotions and atmospheres on the album expertly, and has a tinge of darkness in it that lends her a bit of extra gravity. The instrumentation, which ranges from the orchestral and pompous to very stripped-down and almost understated arrangements, has clear nods to popular music from 40-50 years in the past, but is at the same time highly modern with samples, loops and what I’ve seen called trip-hop and vocal lines that approach rapping.
The album does contain some filler tracks, and as such the album would be better if a few tracks following the fine small-town nostalgia track What Makes Us Girls were excluded. However, Del Rey wraps things up on a good note with Lucky Ones. The second disc of the “Paradise Edition” doesn’t quite hold up to the high standard of the album, but it’s still worth the price of admission.
Undeniably, there is a strong superficial and “fake” aspect to the album, but I can’t believe that is unintentional; to me it seems like Lana Del Rey understands the shallowness of popular culture just as she understands clichés and pop culture stereotypes, and uses the shallowness to the benefit of this album, interspersing the artificiality of modern popular culture with moments that echo of something a bit deeper.
Bottom line: I don’t always fall in love with albums, but when I do, I fall hard. And I fell for this even harder than usual.