What did anyone really expect from Lana Del Rey’s first full-length album? Her career has been meteoric: a breathtaking single followed by a never-ending stream of press. It seemed anyone who wrote about her either liked her music but saw her as “fake”, or disliked her music but wouldn’t have objected to taking her on a date. Regardless of where you stand, Lana Del Rey’s primary commodity these past few weeks has been mystery: who is the girl with the impossibly large lips who blundered so publicly on Saturday Night Live? And now, the album is out – and unfortunately, without the mystery, it doesn’t really stand on its own.
“Video Games” remains one of the most beautiful tracks of the last 12 months in music. It feels dreamlike and timeless, but also tells such an average story: Del Rey loves a man, and he loves playing video games. It’s the disparity, maybe, between the music and the narrative, between Del Rey’s professed love and the mundane response she gets, that makes the song so resonant.
Born to Die as a whole lacks the maturity and polish of “Video Games.” It is, at times, unattractively cloying (see: “Dark Paradise” and “Diet Mountain Dew.”) The beginning of “National Anthem” sounds like Del Rey is trying to remake the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” but once the lyrics kick in, the tone falls spectacularly flat. It’s a long album (a gutsy move), and it makes the same mistakes again and again.
The world of Born to Die is certainly a world of recurring imagery. To listen to Born to Die is to become immersed in what is presumably Del Rey’s world of money, vaguely troubled romance, and things that smell like vanilla. The songs tell stories in a distinctly juvenile tone, like someone who hasn’t quite figured out how to deal with it all. And it’s tiresome.
There are moments of clarity and brilliance. Del Rey’s alto is rich and hypnotic, and she certainly has a flair for the dramatic. When these stars align, her music is beautiful. Moments in “Born to Die,” in “Video Games,” and scattered (sparsely) elsewhere on the album are gorgeous. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule.
The effects on this album are, frankly, kind of weird. The histrionic looped vocals, the men yelling “HEY!” in the background, the oddly-placed vocal distortion… it’s like Del Rey never decided what kind of album she was making. At the end of the day, Born to Die is a schizophrenic release that alternately induces goose bumps and cringes. This reviewer suspected Del Rey had peaked early with “Video Games.” Now, she knows it.