On her new album, Lana Del Rey slips and falls after a promising stride forward.
Four years after “Video Games”, Lana Del Rey still isn’t a star in the traditional sense. This is despite her immense popularity, the millions of records she’s sold. Del Rey follows an orbit that intersects only here and there with those of other heavenly bodies. She’s the Pluto of the pop solar system, an outsider located in its coldest, distant reaches. Like the former planet, her fundamental status is, in the grand scheme of things, up for debate. But no one can deny her gravitational pull. She’s often the best part of a constellation of film soundtracks. The Weeknd, an errant meteor who recently crashed into the Hot 100, tapped her for a recent duet. Taylor Swift, our big yellow sun, paid (an inadvertent?) tribute to Del Rey by aping her style on 1989’s “Wildest Dreams”.
Lana Del Rey remains a living and breathing concept, one I’ve yet to comprehend. The final track off her disappointing new album Honeymoon is a cover of “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood”. That titular imperative, once made immortal by Nina Simone, is easier said than done. Obfuscation is, after all, central to Del Rey’s persona and artistry. And, like a young Bob Dylan or David Bowie at his height, it’s also key to her appeal. Dylan and Bowie sprang from the myths of railway hobos and interplanetary visitors, respectively. Del Rey instead fashions herself from the dust of Hollywood’s faded marquee lights. Despite being an East Coast interloper, she embodies L.A.’s twin siblings: glamor and self-destruction. This can be compelling in theory. (It often is.) The problem comes with how she chooses to translate theory into practice.
Del Rey's last album Ultraviolence imagined sad diary entries as blown-up celluloid fantasias. Not only did the record work spectacularly well, it wiped her slate clean. Past stumbles dissolved in the face of slowed down, orchestral extravaganzas. But Ultraviolence didn't get lost in the sweep. Its songs could, all the sudden, be spry and nimble; they varied in subtle ways. Dan Auerbach monitored this precarious balance, and brought a rock ethos to torch balladry.
When Lana Del Rey announced Honeymoon, in an interview with Billboard, she threatened a return to her original sonic template. The good news: Her third LP sounds nothing like Born to Die. (Which is ironclad proof that a benevolent deity exists.) The bad news: It’s a carbon copy of Ultraviolence, minus regular hints of lightness or charm. Del Rey is the primary producer on Honeymoon, with assists from Rick Nowels and Kieron Menzies. It appears she learned the wrong lessons from Ultraviolence's critical and commercial success. The new record marches, with halting steps, toward suffocating, if lovely, dullness. Lana Del Rey overachieves in this regard. Honeymoon becomes interminable about halfway into its runtime.
There are early highlights, which point to the album Honeymoon could have been. “Music to Watch Boys To” floats atop ethereal vocal overdubs and heaving strings. A reverberated guitar lick gives the hymn-like “God Knows I Tried” a backbone. Lead single “High by the Beach” and lesser cuts, such as “Freak” and “Art Deco”, flirt with stuttering trap beats. But Honeymoon soon settles into rhythms that do little more than mark time. Its songs begin to lose melodic distinction. A generic, moody sensibility yawns and then swallows the album whole. When “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood” arrives, an hour into Honeymoon, its simple synth melody zaps the listener from a comfortable stupor.
Lana Del Rey has never been an expert lyricist, but her best songs mixed deep devotion to an unnamed lover with a deeper self-consciousness. Her new tracks, more direct and assured, are silly, if not embarrassing. “Music to Watch Boys To” builds to a chorus where an irony-free Del Rey declares “I like you a lot/ So I do what you want.” (What a feminist!) On “Art Deco”, she rhymes “you're so Art Deco” with “baby, you're so ghetto.” (Profound!) She regurgitates platitudes on “Religion” (“let sleeping dogs lay” and “chips fall wherever they may”). (Grandma couldn’t have said it better!) “24” gets its name from the insight that “there's only 24 hours in the day.” (So true!) Pet owners, pay heed to this bit of veterinary advice: “If you lie down with dogs, then you'll get fleas.” (Can’t argue with that!) I once praised Lana Del Rey for her sideways allusions to a parade of great artists on Ultraviolence. “The Blackest Day” conveys sadness by invoking Billie Holiday. And why not? “The Blackest Day” and “Billie Holiday” rhyme. (Good enough for me!) Thanks for the T.S. Eliot reading, though.
On Honeymoon’s title track, Lana Del Rey sings, “We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me.” Is she trolling her critics? Of course. It’s what she does best. But Del Rey has struggled to back up her provocations with substance. Ultraviolence was an exception, a singular breakthrough. Honeymoon is, sadly, a slip and fall after a promising stride forward. C PLUS