Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

I gave the new Lana Del Rey record a solid listen over the weekend. A lot of my peers weren’t posting reviews and I didn’t anticipate doing so either, so it sat on the back burner for a while. Unlike everyone else on the planet, I still haven’t watched the infamous SNL video. I don’t really care. I’ve been mildly interested in the vocalist for some time now, and live flub isn’t something that would sway my un-made opinion one way or the other.

On the contrary of the live performances, Born to Die came out today. So now we have an honest-to-goodness, traditional, full-length record from which to judge Del Rey forever. And while things might get messy in the blog press this week with all the ‘gaga eyed’ fans turned haters foaming at the mouth with regurgitated reviews, I’m somewhat optimistic.

I like that the record begins with the title track. There’s something old school and less-than-tricky here. The swelling of strings and subtle dynamic is very pop-like. Vocals are humble, and I love the smoothness of Del Rey’s low voice over the simple, reverbed beat that is electro/real indeterminate. The underlying beats throughout the record are all simple but fresh, even though often overlaid with semi-sheer hip-hop standards – “Off to the Races,” “Diet Mtn Dew,” “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” “Lolita.”

There’s some swaggering alt influence sprinkled in these tracks, both musically and lyrically. “Off to the Races” and “Million Dollar Man” harbor some great eclectic pieces of instrumental orchestration and fun, story-telling tales. Stylistically, the former reminds me of Lily Allen and the latter of Fiona Apple, but that says something about Del Rey’s capabilities. If it’s the case that she wanted to show off a bit here, she did it by having a record that was long enough and consistent enough, production-wise, to accommodate these deviations from pop standard. I think it’s foreshadowing, and will be happy to see the day when Lana Del Rey has her own Extraordinary Machine moment.

On the topic of length and production consistency, those things also allowed Del Rey to take the Sarah Vaughan approach with the vocals. I’ve heard a lot of people say that maybe she’s ‘trying too hard.’ I disagree. The ability to shoot over the top, to reach for the high notes whilst tagging a few in between in every other bar exists. I believe that Del Rey has that capacity, but that the brooding of talent takes a back seat to the entertainment of its use in this case. Why break out for a standing ovation right off the bat when you have the ability to smoothly tow lines in a sonically sexy lower regiment than most women in pop today can? It makes tunes like “Lucky Ones” more impressionable, even though the song itself ‘feels like’ a cheesy, unnatural incarnation of a marriage between Grease and that Bif Naked era, which was locked away in my musical history mind until this week.

I’m super interested in the way that the vocals for Born to Die were recorded. It sounds like a perfectly treated radio microphone [I really hope it is]. Whatever the case, the sound is unique and crisp yet warm. Whatever balance Emile Haynie set out to achieve with the production of this one, it was accomplished. I know it’s blasphemous to talk smack in a pop realm about such records as the ones on Haynie’s resume, but this one is, finally, a musical success. Some boundaries were pushed; some boxes were broken.

Leaning towards a real fan of Del Rey’s voice, I wish the lyrics in Born to Die were an equal success story. I enjoy the darkness of “Born to Die” and “Dark Paradise,” but the different kind of sadness – that of the self-sexism variety – on tunes like “Blue Jeans” triggers a gag reflex. Carrying an air of grrl inspiration is one element on which this record failed to deliver. Oh, and I can already envisage 17-year-old darlings in sports cars crashing into one another in school parking lots around the country while blasting and singing along to “This Is What Makes Us Girls.” But I’ve got news for you, ladies – it was contrived for you, and that is the musical downfall of it. That sh*t is not what makes us girls anyway. False reality cast in anthemic hook… check. Thank you pop culture.