Since the eerily melancholic Video Games started doing the rounds towards the end of last year, she’s been alternately lauded as the best thing ever and dismissed as a cynically manufactured fraud who can’t even sing.
The truth, as you might expect, is somewhere in between.
The charges of inauthenticity are puzzling. Yes, Lana (real name Elizabeth Grant) comes from a relatively wealthy background but Lady Gaga went to the same private school as Paris Hilton and nobody holds that against her.
Oh, and Lady Gaga isn’t her real name either.
As another name-changing master of self-mythology Bob Dylan once said, “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
Now that Bob’s set us all straight on that one, the only pertinent question is whether the songs are any good, and the answer’s an emphatic yes.
Nothing here quite matches the ethereal beauty of Video Games but much of it comes close, particularly the title track which recasts Del Rey as a femme fatale in the grand Hollywood tradition.
Carmen pulls off the same trick, while the extraordinary National Anthem evokes a more innocent America; one in which people believed politicians are honest, good always triumphed over evil, and nobody even thought to question the backstory of impossibly beautiful performers with exotic names like Lana Del Rey.
Musically, things stay within the Twin Peaks-meets-Chris-Isaak parameters set by Video Games, all lush strings, tastefully constructed guitar lines and minimal percussion. Del Rey might not boast a multi-octave voice but her emotional range is extraordinary, capable of shifting from breathless innocent to formidable ice queen in the space of a single line.
Intelligent and accomplished though Born To Die is, it’s not quite a masterpiece. It suffers from a lack of variety, which becomes particularly noticeable towards the end where weaker songs like Dark Paradise lurk.
For the most part, however, Born To Die conjures an old-school sense of glamour and escapism which, cynically manufactured or not, is the perfect tonic for these austere times.
What’s so great about keeping it real anyway?
LOS ANGELES TIME:
Were we allowed a glimpse of Lana Del Rey’s imaginary shopping list based on the references within her debut album, “Born to Die,” we would see, scribbled in pen with each “i” flower-dotted: Diet Mountain Dew, cocaine, Bacardi rum, a white Pontiac, heart-shaped sunglasses, a Bugatti Veyron sports car, cigarettes, a Jesus for the dashboard, Cristal champagne, Chevron gas, maraschino cherries (for tongue-tying the stems, of course), Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice, and cherry Schnapps.
You can almost see the self-proclaimed Lolita singer, 25 but oozing teen-aged naughtiness, strolling through the aisles of Target in short shorts with faux-swagger, placing signifiers into her cart. Best known to music fans as the voice and image behind her breakout hit and video, “Video Games,” but to the general public for her much-discussed appearance on “Saturday Night Live” a few weeks back, she’s shaking her derriere, licking her lips and every once in a while “accidentally” dropping something so she can bend over to retrieve it. It’s a put-on, and a transparent plea for attention, and a little bit sad to watch in a cute kind of way — like the worst parts of “Born to Die.”
One of the great pop music mysteries of the past year is exactly how a young fiction called Lana Del Rey, whose music has an odd retro-futuristic vibe woven through it, moved from nowheresville to “SNL,” and how “Born to Die,” which comes out Tuesday via Interscope Records, landed at the top of the year’s most anticipated release pile. Budding singers with better songs and a better voice have spent their lives looking for the kind of ink that Del Rey, born Elizabeth Grant, daughter of a domain-name magnate, has received.
One possible reason: At her early December sold-out performance at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, the room was thick with music industry pros catching their first glimpse at the rising singer. The balcony section was roped off to the general public, reserved for a few dozen Universal Music and talent agency reps seeing for themselves who this Lana character was who’d caused such a buzz with “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans,” and wondering whether she might help their bottom line.
Could her success have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, proof that a label can still orchestrate a marketing plan this grand? Or is this just some gambit that paid off, the Great Blog n’ Hype Swindle?
“Born to Die” definitively answers this question for anyone who cares (or at least for me, and I care): It’s an impressive gambit that worked magnificently by one measure — buzz and maybe even first-week sales — but that ultimately rings hollow because of a weak performance by the actor/singer Elizabeth Grant. Both aspirational and degenerate, it’s by a young voice who on “SNL “stood in a floor-length evening gown and flowing gold locks, as she had at the Troubadour, barely moving, way less visibly nervous than you’d probably be in similar circumstances, but seeming so unnatural as to demand close scrutiny.
Her performances of “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” felt contrived, and she seemed unaware of awkward affectations that suggested she’d been micro-managed by the lot in the Troubadour balcony. She sang with lonely detachment, as she does throughout the 12-song album, with a hum of seduction that tangles with Nelson Riddle strings and expansive, wide-open echo, sounding like it was recorded in a massive underwater cathedral.
One of the most transfixing aspects of “Born to Die,” in fact, and what makes it seem a little better a record than it actually is, is how it sounds. At the album’s best, as on “Video Games,” “Summertime Sadness” and “Dark Paradise,” producers use sonic space with great skill. Unlike the majority of big-ticket releases crafted for maximum impact on jumbo car stereos, ultra compressed for the radio and MP3 generation and thick in the middle, “Born to Die” offers a certain relaxation within its frequency ranges. Songs are uncomplicated but dynamic, with just enough curious affectations -– a Billy Strange-sounding guitar line here, an Ennio Morricone vista over there, soldier-march snare drum rolls, and Owen Bradley-styled Patsy Cline string flourishes — to make you pause and wonder if the character named Lana might be on to something. And hopefully it will prompt you to ponder what kind of music you’d be making at 25. It probably wouldn’t be as evocative as the best ideas on “Born to Die.”
Consisting mostly of fictions from an imagined America, on “Born to Die,” Del Rey presents songs about the ragged life as invented by someone who doesn’t look to have ever swigged burnt 3 a.m. truck-stop coffee –- a Williamsburg trucker’s cap come to life — someone who in her lyrics divides her time between New York and L.A. without any regard for anywhere else — except maybe the prominent Wal-Mart end-caps in red-state America that will make or break her career.
And then there’s her voice, with so much potential and yet unrefined. Her courage is commendable, even if she thinks she’s got a way better tone than she does. But when she maneuvers that tone well, there’s something there. She pinches her vocal cords like Betty Boop for “Off to the Races” — and paraphrases “Lolita” lover Humbert Humbert. She goes low and often it feels forced, but occasionally, as on “Million Dollar Man,” she nails it. Del Rey has listened to her fair share of Amy Winehouse, but gets nowhere near the emotion within the late British singer’s voice. Del Rey’s attempts are without the honesty or devil-may-care feel.
This lack of belief in in her protagonist is what ultimately dooms “Born to Die.” Lana Del Rey isn’t nearly as convincing a fiction as David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Madonna Ciccone’s name-shortened boy-toy persona or even Taylor Swift’s character, “Taylor Swift.” And by the end of “Born to Die,” the experience has become tiring and woozy, like if you’d taken a half-dozen Ambiens when you’d put the record on — and now you’re getting very, very sleepy.
Judgment day is upon Lana Del Rey now that her debut ‘Born to Die’ is landing. Del Rey is the “It” girl of the moment, and she has been met with heaps of criticism and praise. At the end of the day, the question remains: Is Del Rey all hype or is she authentic?
Well, we’ve listened to every song on ‘Born to Die’ and here’s the verdict: the album is a sexy, sprawling ode to sex and death. There is not much in the way of variation when it comes to the pace of the songs: They are slow and they take their sweet time making their points. That said, all the bells, whistles, layers, nuances and soundscapes are what move the album along, allowing it to evolve, keeping it interesting, and preventing it from becoming a drone.
It’s also lush, layered and heavily produced, but despite all the studio treatment, Del Rey’s creepy cool voice is at the center of it all, anchoring the songs, beguiling us and luring us to her lair. No, she does not posses diva-like pipes, but she has a haunting, unusual and memorable tone and style. Whether she’s doing a talk-rap or getting breathy like Brit, Lana Del Rey is mysterious. She’s not your average pop starlet — in fact, we’re questioning whether she’s pop at all.
1. ‘Born to Die’: A slow, sultry lament where LDR sing about walking on the wild side and pleads “Don’t make me sad / Don’t make me cry.” She has a voice ripe for pain and it’s at the front of the mix on this song, which features subtle drum ‘n’ bass elements.
2. ‘Off to the Races’: She does a talk-rap and this is Lana as a b-girl with breathy Britness, calling herself “crazy,” cooing in a baby doll voice and begging a lover to “kiss me on my open mouth.” It’s a loungey, rich and textured romp for the digital generation.
3. ‘Blue Jeans’: With it’s plucky riff, this thick, moody number would be right at home during a bloody sequence in a Quentin Tarantino film. Can’t you just see LDR’s voice being the salve that soothes while a character gets a vicious beating? Picture it!
4. ‘Video Games’: You know this one. With full, rich production, it’s another vehicle for her old soul voice.
5. ‘Diet Mountain Dew:’ It has nothing to do with the soda. Lana does the breathy sexy girl well. When she asks “Do you think we’ll be in love forever?” over a backbeat, we wonder if she is asking that of her fans and critics.
6. ‘National Anthem’: Another familiar song, at least among Lana fans and haters. There is so much studio treatment on this song, but we still hear Lana and her backing vocals.
7. ‘Dark Paradise’: With its solitary drum beat and gothic and romantic synths, this is Lana’s neo-nu wave, choir anthem and lament on death — since she worries about not reconnecting on the “other side.” This is one of the most standout tracks on the album, thanks to the somewhat harsh synths.
8. ‘Radio’: Most of the songs on ‘Born to Die’ are cinematic, and ‘Radio’ is no different. Did we mention she does that breathy-over-beats thing better than most? When she sings “Not even they can stop me now,” we’re left thinking she’s being prophetic.
9. ‘Carmen’: Opening with a sad, sad violin that’s accompanied by Del Rey’s sad, sad (but always sexy) voice, the song is consistent with much of what surrounds it: Del Rey’s voice is flowing in waves as soft as her hair. It’s soooooo dreamy.
10. ‘Million Dollar Man’: If you could picture Lana in a smoky jazz club, like a hole in the wall in New York City, this is the song she’d be crooning. At some points, in this song and others, Del Rey reminds us of Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star. She has such a maudlin, but not morbid tone, which lives among subtle (but not aggressive) drum ‘n’ bass accompaniment.
11. ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls’: This is an autobiographical moment for Del Rey, as she sings about teachers, fellow 16-year-olds, best friends and mascara running down her eyes. The song escalates and is one of the “louder” songs on ‘Born to Die.’
12. ‘Summertime Sadness’: On an album marked by shoe gazing moments, this is Lana Del Rey at her most head down. But even though there is a palpable damaged girl in her voice, she commands attention with her lazy delivery.