Six months on from the release of single, “Video Games”; the subsequent groundswell of hype and controversy surrounding Lana Del Rey has burdened the 25 year old singer’s “debut” (she actually released an album in 2010, recording as Lizzy Grant) with its own peculiar zeitgeist. A lot of different things are expected of this album by a lot of different people. Sadly, you can’t please all the people, all the time.
Since before Del Rey’s failed coming-out-party as Lizzy Grant, the indie world has been eager to claim her as one of their own. Much of this is owing to her early YouTube videos – grainy, homemade videos that called to mind countless other grainy, homemade videos uploaded by countless other indie upstarts since the advent of YouTube- but Born To Die doesn’t take long to wash away any of that lingering indie aesthetic with its decadent pop production and unabashed aspirations of America-sized grandeur.
Born To Die starts promisingly with its best songs making early appearances. Album opener and title track, “Born To Die” announces its arrival with a flourish of lush strings that set the tone of the music to follow – road-movie evocation, achingly stylish noir-pop and widescreen cinematics abound- before quickly embracing the trip-hop/hip-hop tropes that pervade the album at every turn. As Del Rey’s pensive, half-slurred vocals cut through the slicker-than-slick production with a sultry charm that is all hers, it becomes readily apparent that for all the damning talk of Del Rey’s authenticity (the inherently rich, botoxed New Yorker hasn’t always presented herself as just that) and that disastrous Saturday Night Live performance; the girl can certainly sing.
“Off To The Races” and “Video Games” follow in short order and showcase Del Rey at her best. The former is as subversive and sophisticated as modern pop music gets – Del Rey sings, raps and coos her way through the kind of lyrical introspection the album would greatly benefit from more of, while the Kanye West-sized production boasts bass-rattling hip-hop beats and theatrical strings. The track succinctly illustrates the dichotomy of Del Rey’s assumed persona – one part assured, independent woman; one part fragile, dependent, spiralling mess of beauty. She even gets a Lolita reference in there (“Light of my life/Fire of my loins”). “Video Games” meanwhile, opens with Ennio Morricone-esque orchestration (and harp!) and swells with strings and martial drums and a truly gorgeous vocal into something huge. If you haven’t heard it yet, you will.
When Del Rey sings “Heaven is a place on Earth with you” on “Video Games”, it’s not known if that’s a sly nod to one of the album’s more prominent co-writers, Rick Nowels (writer of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” of all things) or not. Aside from Nowels, Born To Die has more than its share of “outside help” in the form of myriad producers and co-writers, including Emile Hayne (Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi) and Mike Daly (Whiskeytown). While par the course for big money pop productions of its ilk, Born To Die isn’t plagued by the same problems many of its forebears have been. But instead of feeling disjointed and uneven, the album feels focused to a fault. Too many songs follow the same blueprint of piling strings on top of trip-hop beats on top of Del Rey’s melancholy vocals with little variation in between.
Then there’s the album’s lyrical content; while redolent and intriguing in places, too often does Del Rey needlessly repeat herself – “Let me kiss you in the pouring rain” on “Born To Die” and “Kiss me on my open mouth” on “Off To The Races” bear more than a slight resemblance; as do “I’ll love you ‘til the end of time” on “Blue Jeans” and “Loving you forever can’t be wrong” on “Dark Paradise” – and too often does she retread the same themes of material wealth and undying love in lieu of having anything new or interesting to say.
The songs that work in the second half of the album work because they deviate from the script. “Radio” adds Twin Peaks-styled guitar to the well-worn arrangement of strings and hip-hop beats and sees Del Rey once again dabble in lyrical introspection (“He says to ‘be cool’/But I don’t know how yet”); “Million Dollar Man” sounds like a future Bond theme; and album closer “This Is What Makes Us Girls” makes fine use of a melody that recalls Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” (uncannily so, in fact).
Born To Die is a bold statement of intent and a perfectly serviceable pop record, highlighted by occasional flashes of brilliance. It’s also a record that, on the whole, fails to live up its own carefully cultivated and warmly embraced hype. Del Rey is a star in the making and as far as pop starlets go, she’s one of the more interesting of her kind. If she can develop her persona into something more than “ghetto Nancy Sinatra” and imbue her future albums with more varied musical touchstones (maybe revisit the indie-centric blues and folk that made her such a pre-fame internet darling), she might just create something worthy of the hype she so keenly revels in.