Album Review: Lana Del Rey – ‘Born To Die’

Lana Del Rey – ‘Born To Die’: 5.9

Lana Del Rey’s journey to prominence hasn’t been so much a “rise” as a “rise, then dip, then catapulted upwards”. Before anyone could object, she was scaling the lofty reaches of worldwide charts with ‘Video Games’ and for one brief moment, it seemed she could hardly fail to grasp success. However, revelations of her background stunted her path to success somewhat, before we realised that to be so cynical to just one artist would mean our unexplainable love for other, less talented artists would be completely unjustified. And even though Del Rey covers limited ground musically on ‘Born To Die’, only a fool would admit that what she does she doesn’t absolutely master. From the simple pronunciation of a word she can command your fullest attention – the closing line of the sumptuously alluring ‘Carmen’ and the hypnotising acrobatics of ‘Off To The Races’ exemplify her vocal abilities not just in her range of the power behind it, but also in the articulation and the emphasis on certain syllables to create her desired effect. That said, so much hangs in the balance of this one album that it’s precarious position at such a level of global anticipation means that very little could ever deliver that great promise and sustain Del Rey’s captivating grip on our ears.

And so ‘Born To Die’ is best listened to if you forget all the hype. This album doesn‘t want it. But don’t listen to it with the misconception this is a modest album. At all – just look at her dominating presence on the cover, and how she discreetly wears a blood red bra underneath her white blouse to symbolise her deliberate rebellion. It’s not even quietly confident; underneath her enticing purr she’s brandishing a 10ft sign declaring her name, album name, release dates in countries worldwide, and what all the major music services are charging for it. ‘Born To Die’ sets it’s goals high, often well out of Del Rey’s reach – ‘Blue Jeans’ comes off as a try-hard romancer that lives off an uncomfortably skewed archetype of the American love story, and on ‘Million Dollar Man’, she muses about a wealthy lover in nigh-on dirge fashion, compromising her usually plentiful ethereality for plain detachment and boredom. Throughout the album she assumes the form of many women, and most of these personas lead the album to feeling disjointed in it’s thematic tropes and amalgamation of ideas. We were deceived by the startling similarly of singles ‘Video Games’ and the title track so much we believed she could form a credible, tangible persona as Del Rey, though her dexterity is tested to the max in a 12-track album, and quite frequently we can only watch from the sidelines as her foundations crack under the weight of the songs.

Opening with the title track, the album gets off to a clunky start, but in that one song she sums up the entire message of the album. Del Rey might do very little to set herself apart lyrically from her competition, but her execution has a refinement to it that resonates deafeningly through the rest of the album due to her and her record label apparently striking gold with a formula that prints money and consigns Lana Del Rey to the history books as the first starlet with fashionably out-dated music to sell records to higher than Plastic status. And if ever this refinement slips, it only does so to instil deadly serious pessimism: one minute she could be as normal as her level of normality allows, and the next she’s pre-empting – anticipating even – your death – “Keep makin’ me laugh; let’s go get high/Because you and I – we were born to die”. ‘Off To The Races’, whilst one of the album’s better tracks, appears as if it’s girlish choral whooping is laughing at the inferiority of the tracks either side of it, and so somewhat undoes a lot of the aloof mystique Del Rey built on the title track and practically all of whatever it is she’s trying to do with ‘Blue Jeans’. Within the first three tracks, Del Rey has thrust upon us quite possibly the most appropriate example of why these mix-and-matched personas often collide and bleed into one another, and all to the sound of repetitive productions that do the same.

‘Video Games’s carefully calculated piano and harp assembly makes an appearance, sounding almost like a reprise of the title track. If any qualm came in trying to spot the differences in sound and theme to ‘Born To Die’ when they were both singles, they now merge into each other seamlessly. And without having to go even half way into the album you’ll have already tired from the questionable indifference of Del Rey’s presence on her songs; sometimes sounding excitable and sometimes extremely nonchalant, you can’t deny it’s a versatile tool but, one often thinks whilst listening to ‘Born To Die’ whether she knows which tool is required for which job.

The musical highlight of the album is easily ‘National Anthem’ and Del Rey’s incessant philosophy that “money is the anthem of success”. But only because, for a wild moment at the album’s heart, a song is substantial enough to fill out a sizeable room with it’s sky-scraping choral chanting. One of the few moments where minimalism is ditched for cacophony and her lyrical eloquence evades urging you to turn her off, it’s musicality is a step-up from the phased-shifting on some of the earlier and later tracks, and it remains buoyed by a suitably anthemic chorus. However, there would be no such need to buoy anything if the things that Del Rey mistakes for detail or necessity (such as firework effects in the song’s introduction) didn’t instil such a sense of pomposity so overwrought that there was barely any affection left for the listener – she seems to spend it all on this magnificent non-entity, often at the cost of forgetting that she’s not singing into a hairbrush anymore.

However, in small doses, Del Rey is to be commended for ‘Born To Die’s layered instrumentation and how it reverberates loudly with a certain despair, rather than completely erratic frivolity. There’s a hollowness about her music which excellently reflects the vulgar ostentation of the long-lost decades she tries to capture. And she’s also done well to beguile us and appear adrift of the typified American fantasies we hear from aggressively banal pop acts like Rihanna and Nicole Scherzinger, but in every sense, Del Rey is wrong here. This isn’t your standard album of standard material, but it’s certainly not what she thinks it is; not even she can tie down all the ideas she’s got flying about under the roof of this grand mansion of songs. The moment she opts to chase after one blossoming idea, the rest just float away. But depending on what angle you approach it, ‘Born To Die’ is many different things. That in itself is the great promise of the this American seductress and her faux-elaborate music: she adapts herself to appear as anything you want her to be. And that in itself is the promise of this era of American history. It provided an easy love affair with the most profoundly nihilistic components of life in exchange for a few years of intoxicating extravagance, explored on the dramatic ‘Dark Paradise’ and sexual deviance of ‘Carmen’. That’s exactly what it’s like listening to ‘Born To Die’ – you mix sex, drugs, alcohol and sin into one big cocktail and for a moment you like the taste, but after prolonged exposure to repetitive productions and needless grandeur, you become drunk and the taste becomes bitter. And then sobriety reaffirms your vision and you begin to see that the concept of Lana Del Rey and being ‘Born To Die’ is an enticing one, but very rarely do her diamond-studded arrows, weighed down by realism, squarely hit the bull’s eye.

Dowload: ‘Born To Die’, ‘Off To The Races’, ‘National Anthem’, ‘Dark Paradise’, ‘Carmen’.

Digital Release: January 27, 2012
Physical Release: January 31, 2012

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