Album review: Lana Del Rey, Born to Die

Becoming Lana Del Rey has served Lizzy Grant well
Becoming Lana Del Rey has served Lizzy Grant well
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Cynics have mocked her reinventions, but there’s no denying that the lush sound of Lana Del Rey’s Hollywood sadcore is, on the whole, beguiling

LIKE the crazy kids and romantic kicks she sings about in her carefully stylised songs, Lana Del Rey’s story could have been lifted from the pages of a 1950s pulp novel. A smalltown girl from Lake Placid – let’s call her plain old Lizzy Grant – moves to New York and tries to make it as a singer but she’s just another voice in the crowd. After a couple of false starts, including a shelved album, she decides to reinvent herself with a glamorous pop star alias, a sexy new sound and a cool, photogenic image and becomes an overnight sensation with that one breakthrough song.

Last summer, the sultry, sumptuous yet lip-tremblingly vulnerable Video Games stood out in a not terribly distinguished field. With its symbiotic mix of melody, mood and voice, and accompanying self-assembly video of grainy nostalgia-evoking footage, it became the YouTube hit of 2011.

But these being cynical times, little old Lana Del Rey generated as much hate as love, with the blogosphere going into a flap over whether or not her pillow lips were real – a bogus argument which conveniently forgets that pop music is riddled with artifice and that Grant is hardly the first singer/songwriter to adopt a persona and run a styling brush through her hair.

In fact, Lana Del Rey is as fine a pop creation as we have seen and heard these past few years. Grant shrewdly chose an evocative stage name, describing Del Rey as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”, coined the term “Hollywood sadcore” as a pretty accurate summation of her sound, and took a leaf out of Lauren Bacall’s book by deliberately lowering her voice to the sort of vampy alto drawl which kills you when it calls you “honey”.

Her music is a cohesive blend of old- school cool and 21st-century pop, less eloquent and audacious than the songs of Amy Winehouse, but fresher than the prematurely aged MOR of Adele. On this much anticipated release – the first “proper” Lana Del Rey album – she repeatedly trots out the same themes (amour fou), characters (bad boys and wild girls) and situations (dressing up nice, drinking liquor and/or getting the hell out of town in a Pontiac), to which she adds a liberal dusting of standard American iconography (yup, that means James Dean).

Both the title track and Blue Jeans are cut from the same cloth as Video Games with their rapturous recipe of trip-hop beats, plangent guitar twang, cinematic strings, fatalistic romance and Del Rey’s come-hither voice. But it’s not all a David Lynch soundtrack. Off To The Races is a confident modern pop song, suffused with R&B style, lyrical sass and boasting a packed itinerary of references which takes in both Coney Island and Riker’s Island on the east coast, and Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip. Vocally, Del Rey also covers her très cool bases, channelling not just Winehouse, but Patti Smith, Karen O and Santigold.

Diet Mountain Dew and National Anthem sustain the hip cheerleader chant, the latter alluding to the vulgar excesses on display in hip-hop, with its ambivalent demand for goods and attention: “want a quick sick rampage, wining and dining, drinking and driving, excessive buying, overdosing, dying”.

The more conventional pop ballad arrangement of Dark Paradise exposes the triteness of the lyrics about never letting go even though your friends say you should, blah, blah, but Radio is a rapturous teen dream of a song, the cute purity of the vocal cheekily undercut with the odd expletive. She follows this with the teasing jazz delivery of Carmen, which rhymes “alarming” with “disarming”.

But there is only so long she can draw from this well, and the album moves in ever decreasing circles. Del Rey sounds like a lounge bar Lady Gaga on Million Dollar Man, while the stately pace, military drums and soaring chorus of Summertime Sadness appear to be modelled entirely on Florence + the Machine.

Born To Die stages a recovery at the end with a trip-pop-flavoured flashback to her boarding-school days. This Is What Makes Us Girls captures that mercurial mix of teenage vulnerability and invincibility, and its sad coda sounds like it could be an extract from an old diary: “There were the only friends I ever had, we got into trouble and when stuff got bad, I got sent away”.

According to Del Rey, all her lyrics are based on her own adolescent experiences and imaginings. She may be viewing her past through Hollywood-tinted spectacles, but this script could have a happy ending because, in the main, it makes for beguiling stuff.

RATING: ****

• Land Del Rey: Born to Die. Polydor, £12.99