Lana Del Rey Remains Glamorous and Coolly Detached with Sprawling LP ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Lana Del Rey just released her 5th major label full-length, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, produced by the supernaturally ubiquitous Jack Antonoff. It feels unbelievable that she already has so many albums to her name, all of which reached the highest couple of spots on the Billboard 200. Since 2011’s rocky blog-drama-fueled emergence, as attention has shifted from her mythology to her actual music, her profile has only risen, to the point that she’s fielding “Album of the Year” buzz on NFR!, which debuted at number 3 on the Billboard 200, behind Taylor Swift’s Lover (and both behind Tool’s #1 debut for Fear Inoculum). The album format might be waning, but LDR is still dropping LPs into the Top 10 like she always does.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! boasts 6 singles, none of which charted in the top 10, per usual; a pop anomaly, only one of Del Rey’s singles has ever cracked the top 10, Cedric Gervais’ remix of “Summertime Sadness.” From track length (almost 10 minutes?!) to titles (two thirds of the album’s six singles are either explicit or 16 words long), Del Rey doesn’t even try to chase the zeitgeist and instead adamantly eschews radio friendly chart topping singles. She’s definitely interested in album-centric accolades, however, including Grammys – she released NFR! on the last day of Grammy eligibility for 2020. After 4 previous nominations and zero awards, this might be the one that finally scores her an inaugural gilded trophy.

LDR is generous with nested self-referential nuggets, including the promotional stunt for the album: lime-green ice cream trucks popping up at beaches all along the California coast to dole out vinyl and frozen treats over the Labor Day weekend. Lime green is a wink to “Fuck It I Love You” and ice cream is a nod to “Venice Bitch” (among many references to both on previous releases), and all throughout the album, LDR sprinkles mentions to her standard oft-hat-tipped muses: Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Robert Frost, and for this one, Norman Rockwell, with the ever-present leitmotifs of beaches as escape, the sea as freedom, Laurel Canyon’s gauzy glamour, and the underlying unwavering chill of California. It’s as if “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was stretched across an entire discography as Del Rey habitually nests easter eggs matryoshka-style for the faithful.

The Fordham philosophy/metaphysics major gave us an album of beachy meditations; the gossamer tracks all have a serene continuity, centered in their shared instrumentation of mostly melancholic piano and vocals with a bevy of guitars (both acoustic and fuzzed out electric varieties), beats, and synths, and the tracks’ seamlessness is cemented by those lyrical braids. This is a mood record for contemplating the personal and the grandiose alike, whether an unrequited love or America and the distance between its potentiality and its actuality, meant to be listened to on beach walks and during long coastal drives.

Title track “Norman Fucking Rockwell” kicks the album off, a beautifully luxurious ballad, followed by lead single “Mariners Apartment Complex,” which takes its name from an actual L.A. locale and the setting for the intimate exchange between LDR and a love interest around which the track is centered, addressing Del Rey’s relationship with her own sadness and the emotional strength she shares with those inside her orbit.

“Venice Bitch,” the nearly 10 minute long second single, is a lyrical extension of the album’s title track opener, pinballing around inside the fluttering heart of some nascent LDR romance. The behemoth track is Del Rey’s most psychedelic song to date, which she defended to Zane Lowe during the song’s premiere on Beats 1 radio, “Well, end of summer, some people just wanna drive around for 10 minutes and get lost in some electric guitar.”

The slightly more uptempo “Fuck it I love you” is the album’s fifth single, which also premiered on BBC Radio 1, where Del Rey explained “That one was the last track I did for the record and I wanted also something with some surf drums, so we did that last and it’s just a little of a mood track and I knew I wanted to do a video where I was surfing in it,” which she did in the double music video with “The Greatest” directed by Rich Lee. The track is followed by what may be the best possible song for Del Rey to cover, the sultry earworm “Doin’ Time” by So-Cal sleaze-ska trio Sublime, itself a bastardized cover of the Porgy and Bess Gershwin classic “Summertime.”

The song with the most interesting lyrics on the album, “The Greatest,” grazes on references from nuclear destruction to The Beach Boys to the Woolsey Fire to Kanye West, while a nostalgia haze hovers over all of it as LDR delineates everything she currently misses. On an album full of personal songs, album closer (with a title that’s an entire compound sentence) “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it” might be the most personal, addressing celebrity and American aristocracy, as well as a possible nod to the #MeToo movement.

Remember when the question was about “authenticity”? She’s been committed to being Lana Del Rey for long enough at this point that even if it was a persona at the beginning of the decade, there is no doubt that she fully embodies it by the end. And although the album’s new psychedelic undercurrent absolutely deserves mention as a previously unexplored avenue for Del Rey, even with the new dimension, this is unmistakably a Lana Del Rey album, optimized for languid West Coast afternoons: contemplative, moving, and thematically consistent music to get lost inside. And of course Del Rey herself remains glamorous and detached, disarmingly and constitutionally out of fucks, which she will never hesitate to let you know.

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