Album review: Lana Del Rey's 'Born to Die'
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.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Lana Del Rey performing at the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Dec. 7, 2011. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times