Review: Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell

The fifth album from Lana Del Ray is arguably the culmination of everything she’s worked towards since the release of her viral hit Videogames back in 2011. There’s nothing here that will convert anyone who wasn’t already a fan; instead, Norman Fucking Rockwell! (or NFR!, as it’s being promoted to the masses on the London Underground) is a dense collection of songs that deliver the concept of the American dream.

As a storyteller Del Rey is accomplished, readily suggesting all sorts of details with the chance turn of a phrase; her lyrics often read like diary entries meant for no-one’s eyes besides hers. Names and locations reappear frequently throughout the album, helping to build a dense, knotty narrative that rewards repeated listens. The production is luscious without being overblown, nicely complimenting Del Rey’s voice as a vehicle for her contemplative songwriting; the entire project has cinematic overtones and conjures images of 50s and 60s Americana, like a glossy magazine highlighting the best and worst of recent history.

The first lines of the album’s title track bluntly set the tone for what feels like one side of the dialogue from an intimate conversation: “Goddamn, manchild… you fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.’” This is very much Del Rey’s reflection on the current state of America and the way certain politicians can sell an idea without delivering on the substance behind it that gives it meaning. She’s said in interviews around the album that NFR! is an update on the American Dream and all it entails, something pithily summarised in The greatest later on in the album; “Life on Mars ain’t just a song… oh, the live stream is almost on.” Here, Del Rey does a fantastic job of juxtaposing the future sold to us growing up with the future we’re currently experiencing.

The initial run of songs on NFR! are stellar, from the airy piano and hushed vocals on Mariner’s Apartment Complex to the ten-minute epic Venice Bitch, an inarguable album standout. At first, the chord progression seems to evoke 60s pop before taking a detour into modern psychedelia, with a meandering coda reminiscent of something from a Sun Kil Moon album. Corridors of palm-muted guitar usher the listener onward to Fuck it I love you, a dreamy showcase of Del Rey’s singing and hook-writing abilities. Doin’ Time has a distinctly Latin flavour, and is probably the closest Del Rey comes to the trip-hop stylings of some of her early work. Although they’re two very different projects in scope and vision, there’s a tangible parallel between NFR! and Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Del Rey’s dreamlike, singsong delivery on the former recalls elements of Turner’s spoken-word narrative on the latter, with both artists singing of space-age alienation.

After a strong first half the pace of the album does begin to slacken somewhat, although the ideas expressed throughout still grab the listener’s attention. The instrumentation is lush, vivid, textured, but it rarely overpowers Del Rey’s vocals. Rather, it compliments them, with the muttering synths and tentative keys that break out at the end of Cinnamon Girl being one such example. It might be difficult to class NFR! as a concept album, but it’s very much an album with a sense of place. That place is undoubtedly in the passenger seat of a large red Cadillac cruising through the mid-country in the cool summer twilight.

Del Ray recently hinted in an interview with The Guardian’s Al Horner that she’d love to do a collaboration with Matt Beringer of The National, which would be a truly joyous affair. The tired stereotype of her as a melodramatic Tumblr-baiting singer who gets taken far too seriously by 14-year-old girls is unjust and undeserved; with Norman Fucking Rockwell!, she demonstrates her abilities as an accomplished chronicler of modern America. Goddamn manchild, indeed.

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