“Goddamn, man-child/You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two/Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all,” Lana Del Rey croons on the title track to her fifth major-label studio album, Norman F*****g Rockwell. Over the course of her career, Lana has experimented with rock, trap, pop, and soul across a myriad of projects. Despite the breadth of her catalog, it is Lana’s songwriting that has anchored her career and drawn legions of fans into her world of classic America and melancholy madness.
Lana’s last album, the Grammy-nominated Lust for Life, seemed to be a departure from the wistful haze from her first triumvirate of albums. That album was the first time Lana ever smiled on an album cover (she is none for her stoic and gloomy gazes in her visuals). The artwork for Rockwell, is a comic book-esque depiction of Lana reaching out while the American flag saunters in the background. As evidenced by the music, Lana is reaching out to the era of the 60s where world politics drove the musical output of the world’s biggest rockstars. She is also reaching out into the depths of love and the expanse of classic and retro American imagery. Finally, Lana is reaching out to her audience to invite us on this odyssey of surf rock and piano balladry that work together to create her greatest record yet.
The biggest initial takeaway from Norman F*****g Rockwell is how beautifully piano complements Lana’s haunting tone. Between the subtly sardonic title track, her excellent cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” and the thought-provoking lead single, “Mariners Apartment Complex” (review here), Lana has mastered the art of conveying different shadows of the same character through her voice. On “Doin’ Time,” she’s easygoing and carefree, but on “Mariners” she’s ever-so-slightly falling apart at the seams as she reminisces about being misunderstood. Obviously, Lana’s disarming, vulnerable, and honest lyricism is the foundation for the richness of her music. While on past records her songs were sometimes overwhelmed with metaphors, on much of Rockwell Lana strikes a perfect balance between gut-punching one-liners and more flowery descriptive language.
Norman F*****g Rockwell also captures the perfect song structures in the context of a larger body of work. There are many pockets of catharsis throughout the record: the warbling surf rock breakdown on “Venice Bitch”; the bombastic chorus of “California”; and the euphoric bridge and outro of “The Next Best American Record.” Those subtle moments are just further proof of how much Lana has fine-tuned her musicianship and artistry since her Born to Die days. Rockwell is Lana’s most analog album since Ultraviolence, and the focus on guitars, drums, and piano allow her voice to be heard more clearly and results in a more organic overall experience. Some of her classic baroque pop sound is found on standouts like “Cinnamon Girl” and “F**k it I love you.” But it’s the more experimental moments of deconstructed punk-pop on “Happiness is a butterfly” and the stuttering breathlessness of “Bartender” that really showcase Lana’s growth.
References to David Bowie, The Eagles, and Slim Aarons are sprinkled across Norman F*****g Rockwell; these references to classic rock artists and some of their iconic classic American imagery helps round out the narrative of this album. Norman Rockwell, an American author and painter who documented American life, is referenced on a couple of songs as well. America and Americanness have been mainstays in Lana’s imagery and artistry, but on this album, she provides an almost macabre take on the desolate state of today’s America while looking back on a similar period of time in the country’s history.
Lana has always been a lens through which we can experience the whimsy and complexities of change of the 60s, and on Norman F*****g Rockwell, she has reached the zeitgeist of her artistry. But it feels like she has a lot more to tell us.
Key Tracks: “The Next Best American Record”; “California”; “Norman F*****g Rockwell”; “hope is a dangerous thing”