by Cal Revely-Calder
A review of Honeymoon by Lana Del Rey (Interscope, 2015)
The question, as ever with her, is whether things always had to be this way. Before today’s chanseuse of retro-pop, lush Americana, sepia glamour, abusive affairs, mournful crooning and slow guitars, summertime pining for heartless men – before all this, before everything instantly recognisable as the music of Lana Del Rey, there were other moods: early attempts at self-creation, awkward stabs at the process, messy and bare, of putting an artistic persona together. (She wasn’t always the sad girl that she’s always been.) An artist’s residua – their initial forays, later forgotten – can show us different moments of dissatisfaction, fabrics cut oddly for abortive collections. Before her 2012 breakthrough Del Rey had released a few EPs and albums – since ignored – and these tracks, plus her deep vault of demos and squibs, show just such a range of embryonic directions, the first steps into dances that wouldn’t work out. Take one example, a shortish song called ‘Noir’, an angry shot of love-hate which surfaced in late 2012, and sounds like Marina Diamantis was locked in a studio with only Alice Glass offcuts, her ex’s photo and a quart of tequila. It’s ugly, raw, strained, lo-fi, and everything you wouldn’t associate with Del Rey then or now – except for one line, which is a seed of everything that was to come: ‘he wants a real girl / I’m like a cartoon’.
Del Rey was pilloried upon the mass success of Born to Die (2012); it didn’t take long for her former names and styles to emerge, and rumours of a wealthy childhood, daddy’s chequebook. She was charged with being inauthentic, her (by now) well-delineated style giving off the aroma of something manufactured. But the uneasy balance between a little more fake biography and a little more true pretence is the pure fuel of melodrama. How far do you let yourself be taken in? And the early Del Rey cuts show something about the birth of today’s cartoonishly one-tracked persona: that the criticism had it all backwards. Del Rey’s career hasn’t been about the construction of a fake identity, all toy guns and plastic roses, but about the beautiful amalgamation of what we’ll accept as real and what we won’t. It was never clear why Life and Art should keep to separate ends of the morality saloon anyway; but then those judgements never quite captured a songwriter who claimed, in one monologue, that there was ‘nothing we desired any more – except to make our lives into a work of art’ (‘Ride’), and yet, in what she called ‘the song on [Born to Die] I relate to most’, ‘Carmen’, rhymes ‘I’m dying’ with ‘I’m lying’ – simplistic and deadpan. We describe what evades description as ‘unreal’, ‘unbelievable’. But that’s the shape of melodrama: believe it while you don’t. (And who would?)
Backstories like this give us a window into the atelier, a furtive look at how various elements combine to stage the final show. Some of Del Rey’s trademarks – the bad boys, the red dress, the sex in fading motels – have now been marked as clichés because they remained static from Born to Die to Ultraviolence (2014). But delving into the annals is a way of reversing the microscope, thinking of these repeated snapshots less as using up a small stock of ideas, and more as an insistence on something that was there long before she was successful. This changes the way in which you think about a pop figure as a construction, or an invention. She wasn’t born ‘Lana’ any more than she was ‘Carmen’, but Elizabeth Grant’s ‘Lana Del Rey’ persona isn’t just something that worked for one album then died its death, like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or Thin White Duke; it was a whole vision of a life that only gradually and gingerly made the transfiguration into art. Trace a line backwards: the figure of ‘pale moonlight’, say, from ‘Body Electric’ (Paradise, late 2012; ‘dancin’ and grindin’ in the pale moonlight’), to ‘Summertime Sadness’ (Born to Die, early 2012; ‘dancing in the dark in the pale moonlight’), all the way back to an unreleased song, ‘Meet Me in the Pale Moonlight’. (The music site The Verge made an interactive chart called ‘The Lyrical Universe of Lana Del Rey’; it shows her most frequent phrases, and their uses, their common links. That ‘party dress’, for one, is like a spider couched in a thick web.) But it’s less thoughtless self-plagiarism than the portrait of an obsessive. It’s wrong to call Del Rey’s art repetitive, or tired, or monotonous: doing everything again is the only point she has. A tight, fierce group of images recur over and over; every new fling burns out, every boy like the last; misery and hope cycle around in front of a stream of fluttering American flags, slow cigarettes, drinks and pouts and glances on the Californian shore. Her music has no future tense: its devotion to the past, paired with a self-loathing that repeatedly dares her to relive it, is what makes her world so starkly melodramatic and so believably depressive.
But only people, strictly speaking, can suffer depression, a live crisis requiring treatment and its witnesses’ sympathy. The art of Lana Del Rey, then, is like a study in the things that prompt you to extend those affections, and why, and when. Take ‘Ride’, from the EP Paradise. It’s a four-and-a-half minute song, but the filmed version runs for ten: two lengthy monologues open and close it, spoken in a whisper across shots of Del Rey draped in the Stars and Stripes, riding with bikers, playing with fire and handguns on a desert plain. The opening words run close to Grant/Del Rey’s own autobiography:
I was a singer… not a very popular one. I once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet; but, upon an unfortunate series of events, saw those dreams dashed and divided like a million stars in the night sky.
– which is overcharged beyond belief: say you longed to be a poet, then describe your failure in terms that sound like the Stuff of Poetry on anabolic steroids. But the whole song, and film, are overcharged like this: what you expect, and then even more. More flags, more posing, more wide-eyed languor and lonely walks down sketchy sidewalks; lean into an older man’s car and flutter those lashes; step in, and ride towards the motel –
My mother told me I had a chameleon soul. No moral compass pointing due north, no fixed personality… just an inner indecisiveness that was as wide and as wavering as the ocean. And if I said I didn’t plan for it to turn out this way I’d be lying. Because I was born to be the other woman; who belonged to no-one; who belonged to everyone.
Like ‘Carmen’, there’s something true and something fake not just about the narrative, but about the ‘I’ narrating it, which is at once the individual ‘I’ of Elizabeth Grant and that of Lana Del Rey. Melodrama works by fretting at your sense of concern: to what, or who, am I responding? A response implies human connection, but melodramatic characters use the peculiar human capacity to lie, in order to sketch out a spectral model of something not quite personal. This not-quite-ness becomes discomforting; songs like ‘Ride’ probe your attitude to being lied to while being begged for sympathy. (And, all the while, being supposed to enjoy it.) Complex characters are related to personhood in the way that people are related to it, obliquely, complicatedly, differently for the office supervisor and the midnight visitor, through love and through heartbreak. In ‘Ride’, the middle-eight – often the most energised and impassioned point in Del Rey’s songs – has her, on film, pressing a gun to her temple and studiedly singing ‘I’m tired of feeling like I’m fuckin’ crazy’; during an interview with the Guardian’s Tim Jonze, two years later, she quietly (but emphatically) stated ‘I wish I was dead already’. (This set off a firestorm. She pretended she was misquoted.) It’s possible to say that you don’t believe in either of these gestures; melodrama, more than most art, dares you to say it. But to dismiss them, call them fictional, is to lay claim to a knowledge of how real this figure is at one moment and another, her relation to personhood, what she means to you, and herself; no small knowledge of another world. ‘Gods and Monsters’ calmly and plainly says that ‘life imitates art’, then casually suggests she’s ‘living like Jim Morrison’. He, too, lived fast and died young. The soul of Del Rey’s persona can be found in your sense of how deep that ‘like’ might be.
Born to Die is a title and a half, both a kitschy, self-puncturing joke and a straight-faced hint at existential solemnity. It’s the kind of joke Jim Morrison would have liked. (Like Del Rey, Morrison had a university degree in the arts, though his was in film. Hers is in philosophy, specialising in metaphysics.) It’s an unbalanced and unwieldy album; the first four songs are lifted from the earlier water-testing Lana Del Rey EP, and they form a collective firework to open the show, after which the remaining tracks occasionally come up shorter. Del Rey was more into trip-hop at that point, and its pacy manoeuvres leave a lot to hang upon a writer’s lyrics; but she already knew her own skill, and the best songs, the best lines, come through with honours. Plenty of examples, but ‘every beat of his cocaine heart… every inch of my tar-black soul’, for instance (‘Off To The Races’), is especially rich and sharp. She plays with pairs, coupling and uncoupling. Throughout Born to Die the Beat writers, in particular Kerouac and Ginsberg, haunt her tone and topics, and there are direct references to Nabokov’s Lolita everywhere. They’re often delicately tuned one way or another: in ‘Off To The Races’, ‘light of my life / fire of his loins’; in ‘Carmen’, the sweetly supple line ‘it’s alarming, honestly, how charming she can be’, faintly echoing Humbert’s ‘my charmin’, my Carmen’; eventually, the penultimate song, simply titled ‘Lolita’. This is a heavy run of obsessive personal attention. (Del Rey herself has ‘Whitman Nabokov’ tattooed on her arm.) But the faux-childish ‘Lolita’, like much of Del Rey’s music, skips continually between the first- and second-person. ‘Hey, Lolita, hey / I know what the boys want – I’m not gonna play’: too coy to say who’s playing what, and who – and so perfectly akin to Nabokov’s novel.
‘Video Games’ was her breakout song; in musical terms it isn’t like much else on Born to Die, but its homemade video is still glorious: faded images, grainy nostalgia, a montage of lustre and grime directed from the Chateau Marmont. A lot of Del Rey’s songs are like dreams of cinema: music for films it would hurt you to watch. Her gorgeous pastiche reached its peak with Paradise, the EP following late the same year. ‘Blue Velvet’, all smoke and swell, was a song designed for Del Rey to cover; ‘Ride’ sends her out wrapped in the American flag, then ‘Cola’ sees her ‘fall asleep’ in it. (One of her best lines is from the latter, its opening: ‘My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola / My eyes are wide like cherry pies’. Talk about all-American.) In between the two, a track titled, obviously, ‘American’, and its languorous refrain: ‘Be young, / Be dope, / Be proud… / Like an American’. This is too easy to take seriously, but the same could be said, differently, of ‘Body Electric’: ‘Heaven is my baby / Suicide’s the father / Opulence is the end’. And as her music developed, the melodrama began to feel different, the air heavier, the pace diminishing. Paradise all but dispensed with the trip-hop swiftness; its tempos were slowed, its emotional expressiveness held a few beats longer. Not since side A of Born to Die had the listener been a rhythmic accessory, caught up in the music; now you listened at arm’s length, as if witnessing the crime.
Then came Ultraviolence, even slower, even darker, and one of the great albums of the century so far. Produced mainly by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, its sound is saturated in reverb and sparse instrumentation. Del Rey’s voice is laid bare, the edges of phrases pitted with emotion; most of the songs were recorded in one take, and her vocals were barely processed at all. The mood is languid, the tempo flirts with rigor mortis. ‘Cruel World’, the opener, hits six-and-a-half minutes, while barely progressing anywhere; ‘The Other Woman’, the finale, is a Jessie Mae Robinson cover which drains all the sweet melancholy from Nina Simone’s version, silences the gentle wistful piano, and lowers the pitch to intensify the jealous loneliness. Of course, that sentiment is there in the same album’s ‘Sad Girl’ (‘mistress on the side’), was already there back in ‘Ride’ (‘I was born to be the other woman’) – and so it goes. Ultraviolence is an elaborately blackened version of everything already said. But the desire to bleed her rhythms dry is stronger than before: the chorus of ‘West Coast’ slows conspicuously before allowing the verses a little life, and the album’s final single, ‘Black Beauty’ – ‘You have no room for light / Love is lost on you’ – can barely stir itself from heavy, narcotised elegance. Again, the titles show a persona threading itself between life and fiction – ‘Fucked My Way Up To The Top’ (or?) ‘Pretty When I Cry’ (or?) ‘Money Power Glory’ – but the lyrical mood is relentless. (With the exception, perhaps, of ‘Brooklyn Baby’: ‘I get down to Beat poetry’ and ‘I get high on hydroponic weed’ are teasing jabs at the Williamsburg set – and thus, of course, herself.) The title track caused the biggest waves, weaving together a title lifted from Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and a choral refrain – ‘he hit me and it felt like a kiss’ – from The Crystals’ 1962 hit of that name. In Del Rey’s life, too, there was once a charismatic man, the song’s ‘cult leader’, under whose spell she nearly slipped; for some critics, to moon over escaped abuse was damagingly antifeminist. (In response: ‘For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept. I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla.’) ‘Ultraviolence’ is Del Rey in miniature: real sadness, real invention, everything in the ‘and/or’ between them. Take something less than seriously, leave something untaken.
And now, Honeymoon. The pace isn’t any brisker, or the melodrama any less committed. (What did you expect?) In its willingness to abandon itself to time, it’s still close to the speed of Ultraviolence tracks like ‘Cruel World’ or ‘Sad Girl’; ‘Terrence Loves You’ and ‘Honeymoon’ smoulder their way through slow piano chords and gentle saxophone flickers, eventually threatening to let a little percussive life in, but sinking back into reverie. (The title track ends with Del Rey singing ‘Dreaming away your life…’ over, and over, and over.) Elsewhere, though, you can hear whispers of Born to Die’s more insistent rhythms: her old trip-hop roots are there in the trap beat of ‘High By The Beach’, and maybe too in ‘Music To Watch Boys To’. But she never rapped, per se, she just paced her words into the music; the best songs on Honeymoon are, as ever, when the illusion is complete, and nothing stands out as the wrong kind of too-much. (All the best paradises sound like they were built to be lost.) For this album, that means pure cinema, vignettes that Nino Rota would score, set in sprawling Californian gardens, or on the boulevards at midnight. Take ‘Salvatore’, which sounds like the Godfather series distilled into a musical glass – even crystallised in one rhyme, ‘cacciatore’ and ‘ciao amore’. Death and lust, the two great magnetic forces of the Del Rey world. (This pairing also explains why, to some critics’ bemusement, she shares her stage with Grimes, Courtney Love, and the up-and-coming angelic nightmare Nicole Dollanganger.) But – though this is true of any contemporary music – some of Honeymoon’s lyrics suffer more than Del Rey’s previous from being printed, bare and silenced, on the page, and ‘Salvatore’ is a prime example:
Catch me if you can, working on my tan, Salvatore
Dying by the hand of a foreign man, happily
Calling out my name in the summer rain, ciao amore
Salvatore can wait… now it’s time to eat soft ice-cream
Hard to deal with that inexplicable final turn, which seems like a complete mis-step – but no, in its own time, in the song, with strings and closed eyes and soaring vocals, it works, somehow, badly, yet well. Melodrama has to paint itself more heavily to become the beautiful fiction it longs to be; but then what kind of excess do you get, exactly, if the paint is too thick? It seems like the line about ‘ice-cream’ isn’t at the level of the others, but that doesn’t tell you whether it’s trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to live up to them, or down. How far is Del Rey’s failure a craft?
There are, however, some new ways to add to the old. ‘Art Deco’, in particular, with its pleated chorus, is perfectly judged: reminiscent of the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Flamboyant’ (2004), it has a neatly-syncopated charm that melds Born to Die-era electronica with Ultraviolence-era luxuriance, and shows why Honeymoon is, at its best, a work of assured sophistication, and knows it. ‘Freak’ has the usual kind of tone – ‘Flames so hot that they turn blue / Palms reflecting in your eyes like an endless summer’ – but the synthesised beats, especially in the chorus, lean gently towards the kind of deliberately unstable, ethereal sounds into which Grimes and FKA twigs (inter alia) have recently been working. Del Rey’s metaphysics degree is a quirky source of inspiration, too; see, for instance, ‘God Knows I Tried’ – as with Born to Die, it’s like a bad philosophical pun, but sustained (a little madly) for a whole song – and then the album’s strangest move, its ‘Interlude’. Over looped strings, as if imitating faux-Zen relaxation tapes, Lana Del Rey recites T.S. Eliot, the first fourteen lines of ‘Burnt Norton’ from Four Quartets. It’s scarcely believable, and though she names it an ‘interlude’, it seems to have nothing to do with the overall structure of Honeymoon; but then Del Rey’s albums never have arcs in any case. They’re constellations of moments culled from a mood, and not sequences of stories. This might explain why she puts covers at the ends of albums – here, as with Ultraviolence, there’s one: ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ – without concern for what the sidestep into another life might do to her own tales. It’s also why Honeymoon succeeds so often: its lyrics can veer towards the unprintable because they show, and don’t tell. The album is an aesthetic without a story, cinematography through words and music. Even its cover is pure Hollywood: the art-deco font of ‘Honeymoon’ recalls the artwork for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, to which Del Rey contributed ‘Young and Beautiful’ (of course), and the singer herself is pictured riding in a convertible (stamped with ‘Starline Tours’), in dark glasses, against an endless summer sky. This is her melodrama, photographed large and perfectly beautified; frozen in time without a sense of consequences, she's surrounded by the long lush melodies of here and now, and the best of the golden past behind. ‘Burnt Norton’ would have continued like this: ‘My words echo / Thus in your mind. But to what purpose / […] I do not know.’ But purposes are for futures, and futures are for real girls. Lana Del Rey, from early days to Honeymoon, has never wanted to be a real girl. And so, as ever, she isn’t, not quite. Maybe she’s like one; but then, of course, she’s also a figment, a work of art – like a cartoon.
[Originally published in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 10, pp. 9-12.]