Colleen Reviews Lana del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”

Colleen Reviews Lana del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”

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Lana del Rey doesn’t ease you into her latest album, she drops you smack dab in the center of her apocalyptic yet somehow hopeful vision of America. As the title’s expletive and fiery punctuation suggest, Lana wields pointed lyrics that conjure a nostalgia for California’s iconic cultural landscape.

“Goddamn, man-child / You fucked me so good that I almost said I love you.” Whew. And that’s only the first line of the album’s first song.

It’s been nearly ten years since Elizabeth Grant started releasing music as Lana del Rey. Over that time she has written some of the decade’s most heartbreaking songs and garnered a loyal following for her melancholic, nostalgic pop. American culture and identity has always been a part of Lana’s image. The singer used to perform in front of the American flag and chose blue jeans as her wardrobe of choice. As in her earlier works, Lana cultivates a sense of American nostalgia on Norman Fucking Rockwell! and the album is her most nuanced yet.

In naming the album after the iconic painter Norman Rockwell, Lana evokes the artist’s illustrations of American life in the 20th century. Rockwell’s illustrations portrayed everyday scenes from across the country: a policeman sitting next to a runaway boy at the counter of a soda fountain, a daughter watching her mother get dolled up for a night out, a soldier returning home from overseas. Throughout the early and mid-twentieth century his work was everywhere, from magazine covers to galleries, and unmistakably entwined with the country’s sense of identity. 

Throughout the album, Lana plays the role of Rockwell, painting portraits of her country’s state, while using his name to conjure a sense of nostalgia. Norman Fucking Rockwell! oozes with dozens of cultural references in both its lyrics and sound. Producer Jack Antonoff’s stripped-back piano arrangements evoke the ballads of ‘60s troubadours like Carole King and Joni Mitchell. With the line, “I ain’t no candle in the wind,” Lana nods slyly to the classic song that Elton John wrote to honor the death of Marilyn Monroe. A shot in the joint music video for “Fuck it I love you” and “The greatest” pans over a jukebox that displays classic song titles such as Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.”

Lana Del Rey - Fuck It I Love You & The Greatest (Official Video)

While Lana maintains a sense of nostalgia for classic songwriters of the ‘60s, she also gracefully throws a cover of Sublime’s 1996 hit, “Doin’ Time” into the mix. Harp arpeggios and Lana’s breathy, crooning voice make the song’s dark lyrics more apparent than in the original. As Lana sings “The tension is getting hotter,” her favorite sunny season takes on an ominous tone, made even more eerie by the line that follows: “I’d like to hold her head underwater.” The song slips seamlessly into the album’s tracklist, which delves into the grimy undercurrents of today’s America.

While the album begins by reminiscing about the beauty of California’s beaches, as Lana slips into the back end of the tracklist she peels off their shiny veneer to reveal a grittier reality. In “The greatest,” Lana sings that Hawaii narrowly escaped a fireball and L.A. is in flames. Although she loves California, she misses her friends in New York and feels lonely as the state’s luster begins to wear off. “I guess I’m burned out after all,” she sings resignedly near the song’s end. While California appears as a sunny dreamland in songs like “Venice Bitch,” it takes on a nightmarish tone by the end of “The greatest” — even Kanye West is “blond and gone.”

As much as Norman Fucking Rockwell! looks at today’s culture, it’s also a self-portrait of the singer herself. After years of having fans and critics dissect her work, Lana speaks back through the album’s fourteen songs. “They mistook my kindness for weakness,” she sings on “Mariners Apartment Complex.” “I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus / Can’t a girl just do the best she can?” Taken in the context of the song, Lana uses these lines to ask forgiveness of a partner for the mistakes that she made in a relationship. But perhaps Lana is also using this partner as a stand-in for the fans and critics who have scrutinized her actions and “took [her] sadness out of context.”

For so much of her career, this air of sadness has defined Lana’s music, with song titles like “Summertime Sadness,” “Cruel World,” and “Born to Die.” Now, while Lana doesn’t shy away from some grim realities, she still finds hope. “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have,” she sings in a faint voice over only a piano, “but I have it.” 

Throughout her career, Lana has intentionally used her image to extend her art beyond just her music and into her personal ethos. Lana doesn’t just sing about America; she is the sun-soaked California girl next door. She doesn’t just write lyrics about Venice Beach; she drinks her morning coffee overlooking the waves.

I was initially taken aback by the press photo Lana chose to promote the albumI expected a glossy, high-resolution image of Lana posed in a studio. Instead, the photo is a tight crop from the shoulders up of Lana outside, maybe on a city street or an airport jetway. The camera quality isn’t remarkable and her face is partially in shade. Lana is wearing her signature look: winged eyeliner and voluminous, teased hair. The photo could be your friend’s Facebook profile photo—that of a girl you went to high school with or met at summer campexcept it’s Lana’s unmistakable features that are pointed squarely towards the camera and she is beaming, caught in the middle of an open-mouthed smile.

At first glance, the photo seems out of place, maybe even a bit unprofessional. But it’s also very Norman Rockwell: an unassuming snapshot of a moment in time, a photo taken at just the right second that captures the smile lines around Lana’s eyes and her wide grin. It’s a photo of a woman constantly in the public eye, knee-deep in California’s polluted waters and underneath a flaming sky—but still full of hope.

Score: Eating popcorn at a drive-in movie theater, watching a glamorous black and white flick while the sky darkens and grows foggy around your car. 

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