Lana Del Rey posits critics in both the position of Alice and The Caterpillar when he asks, through puffs of opium spoke, “Whoooooo are you?”
Since the indie blog fascination with her botox lips and found-footage clip for ‘Video Games’ inverted into disappointment and lambasting when her debut full-length Born To Die was finally released, there has been a desperate scramble to answer the question while also standing in a haze, unable to solve such a simple puzzle.
We like our pop stars to be easily categorized: Miley is a technicolor queer hippie; Rihanna is a baddie with nary a fuck to give; Halsey is sex, drugs and alt-pop. With Del Rey, there is no such convenience. It’s not because she hasn’t laid the score out for us: There is a refusal to divorce her from the vision of a Millennial Marilyn Monroe. And that’s OK because she wants you to submit to a fascination with her disaffected world-building and to believe she authentically lives inside those broad strokes of melancholia. Her friendship with James Franco, that he is cataloguing their conversations an entire book tells you precisely in what world she exists. She is not an avatar for torch singers or Old Hollywood. She is not a construct of a pop music team who cooked her by feeding images of Jackie O., Dusty Springfield and a girl with wild hair riding on the back of her boyfriend’s Harley in the desert in a Weird Science-like scheme. She is Franco, she is Riff Raff. She is Lizzy Grant, a girl from a booming racetrack town — now, how’s that for influencing your sense of imagery — who went to New York City to learn metaphysics, a study with rarely a basis in reality, at Fordham University. Lana Del Rey is a thesis statement that she’s never ceased to engage in.
But Honeymoon is by far Del Rey’s most beautifully made and cohesive album. While Ultraviolence and working with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys legitimized her last year, so to speak, her third effort is a far superior product. Like Ultraviolence, the production is tight throughout, but it is devoid of that light taste of rock music. Songs like ‘Art Deco’ and ‘Music To Watch Boys To’ rest on the romance-as-camp laurels she pushed heavily on Born To Die, but with a finer pop finesse to their torch song sensibilities. Love’s poison is more refined here, too. On ‘Religion’ she waxes about the pain of a party-addled paramour who she still can’t resist and finding spirituality, perhaps via a drugs-fog, there. What makes it one of the standouts of the record, though, is that it employs the breathless despair that bled throughout so much of her first album, while also acting as marker for how magnificently her singing voice has developed over the past three years. Still, she remains, as ever, at the feet of her sex partners, singing, “When I’m on my knees, you’re how I pray”. But, hey, Anaïs Nin probably saw God while giving a blow job, so why can’t Del Rey?
Her need to be needed is not a constant, though, particularly on lead single ‘High By The Beach’. It is a slightly more traditional pop song with her signature flourishes all over it, but far more empowered than the character she usually plays. (“The truth is I never gave into your bullshit / When you would pay tribute you to me because I know that / All I wanna do is get high by the beach”.) It’s a shade she wears well, far more indebted to rap (which she loves) than anything she’s done before and embraces the solitude she has always been yearning to be comfortable with. But it’s hard to believe that Lana wants to be alone — and even harder to believe she is always the submissive in each of her transactions.
On the opening title track she sings, “We both know it’s not fashionable to love me / But, we both know there’s nobody for you but me”. Is the “you” on ‘Honeymoon’ a faceless lover or is it the audience? Have music listeners fumbled from the awkward courtship of Born To Die, committed when she softened the edges with its Paradise expansion—still, arguably, her best work to-date—and then were finally locked down with the release of Ultraviolence. Is this album called Honeymoon because she has finally gotten us to submit and now that we’ve put a ring on it, we’re wedded to her maudlin made-up world? If so, Del Rey doesn’t live in Old Hollywood. She is the Pabst Blue Ribbon-soaked night at Ben’s house in Blue Velvet. (But, she did try to tell us that, huh?)
But there is something to be said about the ways in which she’s managed to maintain a campiness about her music without having to sing about her pussy tasting like Pepsi or giving us the sense that the car is about to go up in flames. And she remains elusive. Most of what we know of her are prescriptions about her tragic, cinematic siren-don that everyone else has made. This is album is percolating with proof that all of the critics have been right all along — or is that just what she wants us to believe?
The album concludes with a negligible cover of Nina Simone’s ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’. No doubt it will be received as another addition to a catalogue beaming with last gasps for love. It’s worth our while, though, to look at it as one final wink on an album full of them. That all the while we’ve been debating her authenticity, she’s stood steadfast playing a character and is pleased every time we painstakingly try to figure it out. Who is Lana Del Rey? Someone who is constantly asking us who we are when we need things given to us as neatly as possible.