Even setting aside the hype/backlash cycle that seems to grow shorter and louder every year, there’s not a lot to love about Lana Del Rey’s major-label debut. That’s not simply because of her resigned sigh and Valium-dulled daze; both of which feed into singer-songwriter Lizzy Grant’s persona of a vacant ingénue sleepwalking towards unspecified doom. It’s more the way she leans on ballad-y platitudes and bland production while trying to stretch her signature mix of soppy sentiment and blank-eyed irreverence out across a whole album.
Oh yes, and there’s that weird phantom influence of hip-hop, as if Del Rey were a mannequin who’d spent years soaking up the ambiance of a rap star’s mansion. Or maybe a Barbie brought up on YouTube. But while there are some clapping beats and nods to material excess, the trick gets old quick. It was also more original back when Amy Winehouse name-checked Slick Rick in a retro-sounding soul tune. Even if we give Del Rey a pass for the Betty Boop giggles of her rap homage ‘Off to the Races’, more problematic is the ditzy navel-gazing all over.
Del Rey’s singing is often as ghostly and artificial as the production – it’s just mixed higher. And where Adele can turn lovesick ballads into a defiant badge of honour, Del Rey’s devotional lyrics establish a weak-kneed dependence on men that rivals Best Coast. Swooning with vague promises of eternal love on song after song, she’s vulnerable to the point of ceasing to exist. Even her advice to have fun on the title track sounds disingenuous against such wistful trappings.
To listen to Born to Die
is to hear Grant clearly struggle to build on the one-note persona that drew in so many with the song ‘Video Games’. She may at least co-write all her songs, but this low-impact album still feels designed by committee. It’s also far too slow and tedious at a solid hour (including three bonus tracks).
Is there anything of value here? Well, skipping past the autopilot gestures of ‘Dark Paradise’ and ‘This is What Makes Us Girls’, at least ‘National Anthem’ meditates on money with a degree of knowingness. ‘Radio’ and ‘Diet Mountain Dew’ each have a head-nodding chorus, which this album needs more of. Ditto the more interesting rhymes on ‘Carmen’ (“Lying to herself because her liquor’s top-shelf”
), a surprisingly convincing portrait of a 17-year-old partying herself to death. But we still have to endure several songs mentioning a specific dress, and oh-so-needy phrases like “I can be your china doll / If you like to see me fall.”
As for ‘Video Games’, that harp opening already feels like the tell-tale twinge of a one-hit-wonder. While it’s more interesting than most Lana Del Rey songs, it’s all but embalmed in the imagined constraints of a ballad: piano, strings, slow build. What Grant needs to do, even more than finding an identity with a bit more puff, is remember that she’s the master of her own destiny. She can write any kind of song she wants. They don’t have to be some fill-in-the-blank, self-aware exercise.
Words by Doug Wallen. More at thevine.com.au