Review: Lana Del Rey, the Anti-Adele, Gets Icy in 'Born to Die'

Mon Jan 30, 2012 10:13pm EST

Unwrinkled pop newcomer Lana Del Rey has a lot in common with grizzled Newt Gingrich this week. They’re the names on everyone’s lips; we’re all pleased to have them around, out of appreciation or sheer blood sport; and there’s a general expectation that neither will be much more than a footnote in their respective races a month from now.

The air is still thick with post-“Saturday Night Live” schadenfreude as “Born to Die,” Del Rey’s first album under her current nom de plume, arrives in stores. She’s already been the Meme of the Millennium, but artist of the week may be a

tougher road for her. Six months’ worth of pre-release anticipation and ire certainly make it harder for critics to assess the album on its own terms… as opposed to reviewing the backlash to the backlash to the backlash.

With the hype and sturm und drang momentarily set aside (as if that’s possible!), “Born to Die” turns out not to be the DOA debacle some predicted after her disastrous “SNL” stint. But neither is it the live-wire triumph we might have hoped for after last year’s “Video Games” single seemed to herald a fresh new voice. Like a lot of nascent efforts, it’s promising, frustrating, sometimes overachieving, sometimes overreaching and the sort of thing that would have you predicting great things for her in five years -- if her success weren’t being presented as a do-or-die proposition.

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The problem isn’t all to do with the hoopla. Del Rey makes it hard for anyone to write off her weaker moments as inexperience when she presents as the very embodiment of seen-it-all jadedness. If she’s already 25 going on 55, what’s she supposed to grow up into? 

Sometimes Del Rey seems sincere in her languid, lovelorn romanticism, and sometimes she’s outrightly playing a gold digger. The most provocative example of her Material Girl guise is “Off to the Races,” in which she adopts a baby-doll voice to sing about being the bikini-clad eye candy in the swimming pool admired by a sugar daddy – as if Steely Dan’s cynical “Babylon Sisters” were being retold from the point of view of the young girlfriend. “Bright blue ripples, you sittin’, sippin’ on your black Cristal, yeah,” she sings, in tones that will come off as ironic to everyone except maybe hip-hop die-hards. “He doesn’t mind I have an L.A. crass way about me/He loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart.”

This is not an album that goes better with coke, though. If there’s any '70s drug of choice you’d associate with the album, it’d have to be Quaaludes, given the semi-glacial pace at which all 15 songs move. The strings, the lazy trip-hop beats, and Del Rey’s deliberately beyond-languid delivery all conspire toward heavy-liddedness.

Figuring when Del Rey is being sincere and when she’s being satirical isn’t always an easy task, since she sings almost everything with the same lack of affect (and, some would say, lack of effect). When the lyrics are “God, you’re so handsome/Take me to the Hamptons… Do you think you’ll buy me lots of diamonds?,” it’s easy to know where she’s coming from.

In isolated doses, “Born to Die” can seem half-brilliant -- especially if that dose is “Video Games,” which still holds up. The novelty of pairing such an improbable title with such a beautifully melancholy melody hasn’t worn off, as incongruous harps and bells manage to make life a Nintendo-loving boyfriend sound almost ethereal. When the song came out last year, the song's juxtapositions seemed ironic. But after hearing the high-end decadence described in other songs, going to a beer bar with a regular guy really does sound like salvation.

How many albums will Del Rey -- the anti-Adele -- ever get to develop a more consistent persona, or at least navigate a better path between earnestness and schtick? Hard to guess. But with all the premature posing here, a line Elvis Costello sang years ago in a song called “All Grown Up” seems apropos: “You haven’t earned the weariness that sounds so jaded on your tongue.” 

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