Lana Del Rey is the most beguiling pop star we’ve ever had. Born Elizabeth Grant, she signed a record deal at 21, releasing one album, Lana Del Rey, that was dead on arrival. Undeterred, she bought the rights back to the album and disappeared to plot her next move. She reemerged with a decidedly more sexual look; her pout-y lips and vacant stares conjured up images of a self-knowing Lolita, propelling the now-named Lana Del Rey into a YouTube sensation.
But right away, she courted controversy: her physical transformation was dismissed as calculated and desperate. Opinion about her music was also immediately polarizing, especially among gays (one of my friends proudly sports a Lana Del Rey tank top; another friend “fucking hates that bitch!”).
Further stoking the fires of her mystique, Del Rey quickly conjured a multitude of contradictions: For starters, she is universally praised for her vocal talents; however, her songs often employ studio tricks like vocal layering to enhance the richness of her voice. This can make her songs difficult to pull off live, most infamously in a much-derided performance on Saturday Night Live, in January 2012, that almost derailed her career before it had even started.
Del Rey is also a self-proclaimed torch singer; however, she swears like a sailor, and uses vulgar lyrics like, “My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola.” It would feel sensationalistic if her voice wasn’t so pretty.
Even Del Rey’s music videos are unusual: all of them are postmodern productions that look vaguely like home movies. As such, none of her videos could be described as “iconic” in the same way that a Madonna or Lady Gaga video could be. However, Del Rey always presents an arresting collection of images, whether she’s riding a giant tire swing in the sky or blasting a helicopter out of the sky with an enormous gun; these are not cute, little pop videos.
Strangely, despite their avant garde vibe, these visuals have turned Del Rey into a different kind of video star, similar to what Depeche Mode did in the ‘80s. If she chose to make “normal” videos, her songs would reach a wider audience…
…but that’s not how Del Rey rolls. In fact, she’s surprisingly minimalist when it comes to promotion, only occasionally granting in-depth interviews. In this sense, Del Rey chooses to let her music speak for itself. This is risky since albums are largely fueled by hit singles, of which Del Rey has exactly one (a remix of “Summertime Sadness” became a fluke hit in the summer of 2013, giving her her only top 40 mainstream hit).
Her sound is too alternative for pop radio, and too pop for alternative radio. And yet, she continues to have a career; she’s a bizarre anomaly of our times.
Her new album, Honeymoon, is unlikely to change any of this. The songs were originally conceived as a deluxe edition of her Ultraviolence album, but Del Rey opted to craft the songs into a separate album instead. This was a smart decision, as Honeymoon hearkens back to the evocative sounds of her breakthrough Born to Die album, as opposed to the indie-rock influenced sounds of Ultraviolence.
As with any Del Rey album, Honeymoon floats with a surreal timelessness. “Music to Watch Boys To,” with its layered vocals and slow stomps, is the best example of this; it sounds like waking up from a dream.
And the title track, with its soft, sweeping cinematic feel, has an inherent, perennial romanticism that epitomizes her sound. For the most part, all of Honeymoon sways with the same melancholic dreaminess. One notable exception is “Freak.” While the song was probably meant to sound sweet, it comes across as sinister, like a noir-ish invitation to come to California, a la The Eagles’ “Hotel California.”
Del Rey also still knows her way around a bad-ass lyric: trap-influenced “High By the Beach” is a great kiss-off to an ex, with the immortal line, “You could be a bad motherfucker/But that don’t make you a man.” And, like all of her studio work, her vocals are impressive, with “God Knows I Tried” a notable highlight. There’s a narcotic detachment to Del Rey’s voice throughout this album that threatens to make her sound aloof; instead, it adds to the cinematic, sweeping quality of the music.
Because Del Rey is not a conventional pop singer, there are some surprises on the album: “Salvatore” is a bizarre, Italian-influenced ballad. The song sounds great (and will soundtrack Italian weddings for decades to come), but Del Rey loaded up on the production and forgot to write memorable lyrics: the chorus sounds like a stoned, stream-of-consciousness rhyming game. Also, she throws in a cover of the Nina Simone/Animals standard, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” at the very end. It’s an inspired cover, as the lyrics are almost handcrafted to fit her left-field ascension to the top; those spooky, “96 Tears” organ strains add to the gloomy mystique.
None of these songs are going to be radio hits, but ironically, Honeymoon might end up becoming a classic, just the same. That’s because Del Rey is not tethered to the same constraints as traditional pop stars, allowing her to infuse her songs with a timeless, hypnotic quality. In that sense, it’s great to see Del Rey sticking to her guns and continuing to do what she does best. She’s not competing with the Katy Perrys and Rihannas of the world; she’s her own kind of weird, eccentric, beautiful, contradictory pop star.