Born to Die
Lana Del Rey
49:26 min • Interscope / Stranger • January 30, 2012
Since bursting onto the scene with a persona that befits a grown-up Skipper doll who has veered onto Mulholland Drive, Lana Del Rey has spent the latter part of 2011 shrouded in overwhelming hype following the release of “Video Games” on YouTube. Born Elizabeth Grant, Del Rey had already released an album earlier last year, but it failed to light up the airwaves and was pulled from iTunes some ten weeks after its release.
Speculation is rife that Lana Del Rey is simply a moniker attached to a manufactured muse in order to sell records, the buzzards claiming that Del Rey is fake, which, in turn, is rather ironic giving that pop music creators are not renowned for their authenticity; a lot of artists have “hidden” first albums, such as Tori Amos (Y Kant Tori Read), Alanis Morissette (Alanis) and Nerina Pallot (Dear Frustrated Superstar) and following this path only gives Del Rey more to prove.
Born to Die kicks off with the wonderfully esoteric title track, its lush string opening weaving into harsh drums reminiscent of a heartbeat. The already trademark sultry vocal is underpinned by the genius tremolo guitar twanging. An ode to a love that is wild, edgy and true, the track has become an immediate cult classic brimming with mainstream appeal. It has silenced some of the naysayers by building on the smouldering and epic ‘Video Games’, which spurns a love that has become all too regular, and lays bare a mournful soul and a heavy heart.
The tone switches vehemently as ‘Off To The Races’ pitches Del Rey as a hip-hop, parasitic potiche and puts paid to any impression that she is a mere balladeer, delivering a bipolar vocal that befits a mysterious and reserved woman in the verses and a psychotic little girl trapped within when gleefully belting out the chorus.
Light of my life, fire of my loins,
Gimme them gold coins, gimme them coins
She is the savvy, self-serving and fleecing femme fatale that ‘Carmen’ seems to precurse, a smouldering torch-song that could easily be an ode to Laura Palmer’s tragic teen queen “tying cherry knots, smiling, doing party favours”,
Darling, darling, doesn’t have a problem lying to herself,
‘cos her liquor’s top shelf
What emerges is a sonic blueprint of sweeping strings, spy guitar and rough beats married with Del Rey’s dark and layered vocals that is avant-garde pop perfection. The slick production from British musician Justin Parker, hypnotic beats and samples from Emile Haynie (Kayne West, Eminem) and magnificent string arrangements from Daniel Heath are right on the winning formula. The album could have fallen prey to its own genius, as some of the latter tracks appear as reductive versions of the vanguard ‘Video Games’, but this merely vindicates how exceptional that track actually is. The plot does however weaken when Del Rey cross-references imagery in different songs, there are a lot of red-dresses and Coney Island beauty queens, although this method seems to work for Kanye West and is perhaps attributable to Emile Haynie’s influence.
With vignette storytelling and the shrewd alternation of vocal styles and range to convey different moods or personalities, Del Rey packs a lot into each song, the main themes being love, money and Americana. ‘Blue Jeans’ showcases Del Rey’s striking vocal range against a minimalist beat, bemoaning a paper-chasing, gangster lover who is equal parts James Dean and as sick as cancer. Her sincere delivery forces us to believe that she “grew up on hip-hop”. ‘Diet Mountain Dew’ portrays a self-destructive, objectified heroine questioning her choice in paramour and ‘Million Dollar Man’ channels Breathless Mahoney at her most badass. ‘Dark Paradise’ is a smoking ballad evoking the morose drama of Sophie Ellis Bextor from her days in Theaudience that reveals an optimism towards the denouement with an accelerated bridge. ‘Radio’ is the vitriol aimed at her detractors and a testimony to her new found star in the ascendancy, she is the “Miss Thing” in Alanis Morissette’s ‘Right Through You’, albeit more saccharine and less angsty.
The album’s stand out track, though, is ‘National Anthem’. Opening with a string arrangement more than reminiscent of The Verve and fireworks crackling in the sky, this bittersweet exaltation of the bawdy myth of gold-digging materialism has disdain dripping from the mostly-spoken lyrics. The anthem builds into a wonderful chorus where we picture the cheerleaders from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ harmonising.
Excessive buyin’, overdosin’, and dyin’ –
and our drugs and our love and our dreams and our rage,
blurring the lines between real and the fake
The album’s closer is the semi-autobiographical ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls’, and is a beautiful, slow-burning lament to a misspent youth with a hook recalling Siobhan Donaghy’s celestial ‘Medevac’ that has all the narrative of Tori Amos’ ‘Jackie’s Strength’. The canny American references (Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice) are sure to resonate with the “freshman generation of degenerate beauty queens” she speaks of.
Born To Die is a beguiling collection of stories played out in a diverse and striking vocal style with all the elements of David Lynch at his finest. It has tragic femme fatales, fiery pubescent sexuality, American cultural references and a heroine you will lose your heart to. Don’t listen to the hype, simply believe it.