The fourth full-length from Lana Del Rey is sincere and sublime, pushing her fascination with pop culture iconography even further while adding a newly personal touch.
We were instantly entranced when Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” surfaced six summers ago—candid but aloof, artfully homemade, haunted in tone with a video that felt like a message in a bottle washed ashore for reasons yet unknown. Del Rey didn’t give easy answers, but we still asked all the wrong questions in return, demanding clearer demarcation between the woman born Elizabeth Grant, the character known as Del Rey, and the millennial-outreach focus groups we presumed to have masterminded the whole thing. It’s a drag to rehash the
discourse now—a conversation so tediously narrow over a body of work that would prove, over the next five years, to be thrillingly rich.
, Del Rey has neither swayed nor settled. Instead, doubling down on her palette of inky blues and blacks, the singer-songwriter has delivered a trio of dark, dense, radio-agnostic albums that stand wholly apart from any of her pop music peers. If there’s anything about Del Rey that’s obvious by now, it’s that she means it—all of it. Every word, every sigh, every violin swell, the Whitman quotes and JFK fantasies and soft ice cream.
Still, even for the converted, it’s almost too easy to trip into the endless black holes of Del Rey’s universe, where Hollywood sits at the very center in glamorous ruin. Her songs overflow with the iconography of America at its most mythic: purple mountains’ majesty, rockets’ red gleaming, Monroe, Manson. Her layers on layers of symbolism can be disorienting, as I imagine Del Rey intends them to be, encouraging endless cross-references and deep-dive readings of her work that seek to apply some grand cinematic theory to it all—and perhaps there is. But her fourth full-length,
, suggests that at its best and truest, Del Rey’s music is sublimely simple: one voice, one story, one meaning. For years, it seemed Del Rey’s artistry lay in her ability to offer herself as a concept pursued to its logical end.
presents her as something more interesting: a great American storyteller.
apart from the rest of Del Rey’s catalog. First, that smile, beaming from the belladonna of sadness, posed in front of the same truck from the
artwork. Even stranger: the tracklist is packed with features for the first time since we’ve known her. This would be Del Rey’s “happy album,” fans predicted—or worse, an obligatory pivot into wokeness. As it turns out,
isn’t outright happy or overtly political (and thank god for that), though Del Rey is re-examining her relationship with Americana. “I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing ’Born to Die,’” she said recently, of her current tour visuals. “I’d rather have static.” Beyond a symbolic “Pardon Our Dust” sign for a nation in turmoil, it’s an apt representation of the moment
captures—a record of transition, documenting not so much the result of a profound change in worldview as the process of change itself.
Perhaps the most significant departure here is evident from
’s first song, “Love”—a warm, grainy, ’50s-rock anthem (and by far the album’s best single) in which Del Rey shifts focus from her own internal struggle to address her audience directly. “Look at you kids, you know you’re the coolest,” she sings reassuringly, relinquishing her role as the protagonist. The effect is that of a slow pan, the frame creeping outward from Del Rey and stretching gently towards the horizon. That impulse towards a communal understanding of her universe appears most obviously in songs like “God Bless America - And All the Beautiful Women in It” and “When the World Was At War We Kept Dancing,” two pared-down folk ballads with souped-up low ends (the former includes instrumentation by Metro Boomin, with errant gunfire punctuating the chorus).
These are titles that may have once implied a campy wink but now appear entirely sincere—songs for figuring out exactly where the fuck we are now. And more than any specific predecessor within the folk canon, they remind me—as does much of
—of the paintings of Edward Hopper, a realist who captured a new American landscape, as figurative as it was physical. Hopper painted isolated, voyeuristic scenes of the anxiety and ennui of an increasingly urbanized nation set against the totems of Americana (diners, motels, highway gas stations). His work buzzed with the tension between tradition and progress, the cold power of the new against the sublimity of the natural world. Like Hopper, Del Rey’s realism functions doubly as impressionism—literal representation as a means to capture the
that, while less successful on a pure songwriting level than some of Del Rey’s more focused work, are fascinating distillations of what a Lana Del Rey song means. On “Coachella - Woodstock In My Mind,” a song built to withstand the expected eye-rolls, Del Rey soaks in a Father John Misty festival performance, taking stock of the sea of flower crowns in the crowd as she draws lines from the moment out towards the past and future. It’s the most meta song in her catalog—a sweet and self-aware acknowledgment of the entire Lana Del Rey
—and that’s before the chorus breaks into an impossibly graceful nod to “Stairway to Heaven.” And if the first verse of Sean Lennon duet “Tomorrow Never Came”—with its references to Bob Dylan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elton John—felt like an oversaturation of her symbol-heavy lexicon, Del Rey reinvents “doing the most” anew on the bridge: “Isn’t life crazy, I said, now that I’m singing with Sean?” It is at once hilarious and flooring, and I can picture no other artist but Del Rey being able to pull it off.
are simpler—songs that succeed not to the extent to which they concentrate the Lana Del Rey mythos, that present her songwriting as poetry that can stand on its own. There is “Cherry,” a cavernous torch song that reminds you Del Rey’s always been more Cat Power than pop star, rumbling with paranoid sub bass and waterlogged echoes of trap drums—the least obvious and most effective allusion to Del Rey’s connection with the way rap production sounds now (though Playboi Carti serving as the long-lost Shangri-La back-up ad-libber on “Summer Bummer” is an inspired touch). Her lyricism has reached a new level of sophistication, switching from devastatingly plainspoken (”Real love is like feeling no fear/When you’re standing in the face of danger/’Cause you just want it so much”) to the more abstract and sensual. There are visions of black beaches, burning roses, summer wine, and peaches, inexplicably ruined; it all feels like a Vanitas for contemporary America—a still life of soft decay. And on “13 Beaches,” a Hollywood film score that stutters and thuds into narcotic rap drums and ’90s alternative angst, Del Rey merges her symbolism and literalism into something like zen poetry: “It took 13 beaches/To find one empty/But finally it’s mine.” It’s at once a document of lived experience (escaping the paparazzi across a string of beaches last summer) and a meditation on the sublime—the symbol of the thing embedded in the thing itself.
’s lengthy midsection could benefit from further editing, Del Rey saves the album’s two most stunning and thematically essential songs for last. “Change,” recorded the night before the album was due, consists of nothing more than Del Rey and a piano, contrary to her penchant for wall-of-sound epics. “There’s something in the wind, I can feel it blowing in,” she sings in a pointedly small voice, leaving rhyme schemes behind. “It’s coming in softly, on the wings of a bomb.” It’s a record sung from inside the curl of a cresting wave—the feeling of something happening, around you and inside you before you’ve figured out exactly what it means. And on “Get Free,” Del Rey delivers, at last, the album’s mission statement: “Finally, I’m crossing the threshold/From the ordinary world/To the reveal of my heart.” It is not so much a revelation as a promise that one is coming, and when she sings plainly, “This is my commitment,” the album cover’s uncharacteristic smile reveals itself not as a declaration of happiness, but a reminder that it’s still worth believing in.