Review: Lana Del Rey – Paradise

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Lana Del Rey doesn’t fit the profile of a firebrand. Her torchy ballads seem innocuous enough, though her persona –– the gorgeous and jaded sexpot chanteuse with a filthy mouth –– is knowingly provocative. But this sort of provocation is hardly new in pop music, nor is it particularly incendiary. Del Rey, though, ignites a peculiar, intense ire. Her reboot from radio-ready (Lizzy Grant) to indie-friendly (Lana Del Rey) irritates her detractors to no end. Some go so far as to dispute her validity as an artist as such. Understandably, her fans counter with equally hyperbolic praise. Lost in this continuing, apoplectic exchange are two facts: (a) Lana Del Rey is a legitimate (and successful) artist (b) whose music is rightfully subject to criticism.

I wasn’t a fan of Del Rey’s debut Born to Die. Revisiting it eleven months after my review, I like it less. My original, meager goodwill for album was a byproduct of my love for “Video Games.” That astonishing song is, I think, the only reason Dey Rey became famous enough to become SNL fodder and why she still warrants critical consideration. Had Born to Die matched the magnetism of “Video Games,” had it even approached it, Del Rey’s artistry wouldn’t be so in question. But the album’s feeble flourishes (garlands of generic drum machine beats, heaving strings, and tossed-off samples) couldn’t mask a fundamental flaw: its songs, which were largely indistinguishable when not actually mediocre.

Paradise, an eight-song follow-up to Born to Die, is Del Rey’s arresting rejoinder to her haters. It will make few converts, but at least a couple of songs offer a glimpse of Del Rey’s future potential. Being a direct sequel to Born to Die, Paradise (which is appropriately bundled with a re-release of the debut and is also available as a standalone EP) shares every one of its predecessor’s virtues and flaws.

At it’s most satisfying, Paradise has a soap opera-like pretense of grandeur. “Ride” –– a love letter to big skies, the open road, and other American clichés –– opens the collection with dramatic flair, as a breathier-than-usual Del Rey sings “I’ve been trying too hard with one pretty song.” “Ride” is rather pretty itself though, as is the twirling and hypnotic “Bel Air.” Its ostinato piano is the kind of beguiling instrumental hook rarely found in Del Rey’s music.

About half of Paradise is mixture of true promise and botched execution. Despite some questionable lyrics (which we’ll get back to), “Gods and Monsters” is oddly moving thanks to (despite?) its bloated chorus. The vocal phrasing on “Yayo,” a remake of a lovely Lizzy Grant-era song, sounds as if Del Rey were succumbing to anesthesia. The listener can’t help but follow her lead. “American” is simply, and thoroughly, dumb.

Oh about those lyrics –– few have Lana Del Rey’s keen ability to cause swift, rotary eyeball motion with a single clause. Her lyrics are so inane (“My pussy tastes like Pepsi cola”: not even the worst) and on-the-nose (“Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn’s my mother”) that they almost attain a charming goofiness that approximates camp. Without all the fun.

When Lana Del Rey has flawless material at her disposal, as she does on her cover of “Blue Velvet” (and previously had on “Video Games”), her persona and vocal delivery become something greater. But her songs shouldn’t bear the full blame for Paradise‘s lackluster moments (and there are many). After all, a talented artist can easily lift an unremarkable song. In Lana Del Rey’s case, however, her few great songs seem to be doing all the lifting. [C+]

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