Music Reviews
Norman Fucking Rockwell!

Lana Del Rey Norman Fucking Rockwell!

(Polydor/Interscope) Buy it from Insound Rating - 9/10
If you are someone that has paid the slightest bit of attention to Lana Del Rey over the years and have ever wondered to yourself if she could possibly push her music into even grander spaces than she has on her previous albums, you don't really need to look further than Norman Fucking Rockwell! The singles she began releasing a year before the actual album dropped were nothing short of thrilling and they collectively pointed to a major growth in artistry for the singer born Elizabeth Grant. It's warmer and more expansive than 2017's Lust for Life, with her brooding noir-pop branching out into folk, 70s classic rock, and stripped-down piano ballads. 
 
She's also peeled away some of the cynicism her songs were often tucked away in, revealing songwriting as poetic and layered as ever but also more open and honest than ever before, almost to the point of being occasionally jolting. Nowhere is that more evident than on Love Song. Plenty of her songs have "love" in their titles, but none of them come close to the kind of unguarded expression of vulnerability and sweetness in her words, even with the usual references of fame and fast cars. Simply put, it's easily one of the best songs she's ever written. 
 
On the aching California, she touches on the ill effects toxicity masculinity consuming a loved one with an understanding heart: "You don't ever have to be stronger than you really are/When you're lying in my arms," Cinnamon Girl notches things up further and could easily tie both of those songs for most wrenching Lana Del Rey song written. "All the pills that you take/Violet blue green red/ To keep me at arm's length don't work/There's something I want to say to you/But I'll just let you live," she sings in an aching but determined voice, offering support to a partner struggling with mental health issues regardless of how frustrating or hurtful it may be. This, coming from someone that once sang "I just want to die."
 
Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have - but I Have it closes NFR! on a devastating note. Singing over a somber and muted piano, she offers a mournful glimpse at the alienation that comes with fame and her own experiences as a woman in the entertainment industry. It's something of a hard-won triumph for Grant, who, from from the early days of her career, was mostly shrugged off as inauthentic and too ironic to be taken seriously—and it puts into perspective just how trivial and juvenile much of the backlash was and how tedious and worn out it feels now. It's a remarkably sharp pop record that retains her fascination with pop-culture iconography and the rosey simplicity of a post-war America where classic rock and blue jeans ruled and takes them to much deeper places. 
 
For an album literally breaking her own boundaries and those of conventional pop albums for that matter, the choice to work with a renowned pop producer like Jack Antonoff might seem a little strange, but, in the end, it turns out to be a fruitful collaboration. The sound is spacious and elegant, at times stripped to its most essential parts, and other times it's completely indulgent and expansive. Venice Bitch is the best example of this: A nine-minute pop song that builds from gently plucked acoustic guitars to a long instrumental passage of surging guitars that give way to squiggly synths and psychedelic soloing with Del Rey's voice harmonizing from a distance before everything comes crashing back in and comes to an appropriately dramatic conclusion.
 
It's to Antonoff's credit that his arrangements are tasteful and restrained enough to make something like this work, and that there isn't a single wasted note here. It's one of those songs you find yourself easily getting lost in and drifting to, then wanting to play again the moment it's over. Elsewhere, Love Song is stripped down to virtually nothing else but her voice and a piano with touches of strings, California mixes haunting pianos with a slow-burning beat, the string-drenched Mariners Apartment Complex borrows a page from sunny 70s AM rock, and then there's her faithful take on the sleazy bro-reggae of Sublime's Doin' Time, which she pretty much turns into a moody and enjoyably balmy summer anthem. 
 
Her growth as a songwriter hasn't come at the expense of her acerbic wit: on Venice Bitch, she sings about being "fresh out of fucks forever," Norman Fucking Rockwell is a barbed and frankly hilarious takedown of the kind of man-children that peaked in high school and lack the self-awareness to realize it, and, on The Greatest, she talks about the culture being "lit." On Fuck It I love You, she bluntly confesses: "If I wasn't so fucked up/I'd probably fuck you all the time."
 
Where in the past her songs sometimes read like comforting nostalgia pieces about an idealized version of America's past, Norman Fucking Rockwell! almost feels like an obituary to those times, and when she sings "I want shit to feel just like it used to" on The Greatest, it captures the collective realization of just how faded the American Dream has become and how much everything around us seems to be rapidly unraveling. 
 
Despite the somewhat glum mood, it isn't without hope or humor. She refers to recent and current events on The Greatest with a tongue-in-cheek grin: "Hawaii just missed that fireball/LA's in flames/it's getting hot." It's frankly a welcome change from the near-constant depressing news cycle. Though the nostalgia comes across as being slightly mourning, NFR! isn't without escapism, either,  which is something we could probably use more of for the sake of our own sanity. Think of it as an hour-long car ride peeling down the highway with classic rock blaring out of the radio and no real destination in mind other than where your impulsive nature might take you. [Believe the Hype]