Okay, honesty time. The only reason I know Lana Del Rey even exists is the video for “Born to Die.” There’s a male model in it. I wanted to look at him. That’s the whole story. It isn’t especially flattering and I probably shouldn’t tell anyone about it, but in the end my shallowness lead to a very deserving obsession with an artist who’s gotten me more jazzed than I’ve been about music in a while. More jazzed than I was for Tom Waits’ recent release of Bad As Me, which considering the Downtown Train poster I pray to every night, is really saying something.
I’m not the only one who’s been run over by the 18-wheeler of Lana’s success. She’s exploded into the recent entertainment scene, leaving little bits of herself on TV and radio stations for critics to scoop up and gush about. It almost makes me wish I had something negative to say, just to mix it up. But I don’t. I’m on the couch shivering from a full-blown case of Del Rey Fever, teeth chattering an accompaniment to an album sure to have its face shredded off by the needle of my record player (if it comes out on vinyl—please please please let it come out on vinyl).
So what is it about Born To Die that’s got us all foaming at the mouth? It’s the smoke from one of Marlene Dietrich’s cigarettes, a sultry cloud making love to your senses until you’re lost somewhere in a grey haze. It’s a dream you have when you’re half-awake and the room is a little too warm. It’s getting a faceful of car exhaust in L.A. and realizing it smells like Manhattan. This music is alive; it has a pulse and a soul. The insistence of DMX-ish mad beats punctuates orchestral arrangements, delicate melodies sizzle onto searing summer freeways, and it all falls under the narrative spell cast by Lana’s vocals. Her voice is almost otherworldly, drifting between assertive rumbling and the sticky sweetness of candy left to melt on the dashboard—fascinating, wonderful to hear, and entirely unique.
The songs don’t rush; they roll in and out on their own tide. Born To Die isn’t an album you’ll get up and dance to, but it shouldn’t be anyway because there’s just too much to hear. Each song has its own heartbeat, but they all share the same, beautifully-written genetics. The lyrics are literary, Hemingway’s minimalism with Jay-Z’s edge, and feature metaphors like “blue dark,” “velvet night,” “tar-black soul,” and “hold you like a python.” There’s a definite sense of bicoastal excess in every track. We’re swept from the seedy streets of “Carmen” to the Hamptons (in a Bugatti Veyron no less) in “National Anthem.” Riker’s Island to Chateau Marmont. Whiskey, Bacardi, Cristal. “Wining and dining, drinking and driving” (“National Anthem”).
There’s lounge music, there’s gangsta rap, and somewhere in between Born To Die has put down roots, creating in one single hour a new generation’s version of American romanticism. “The dark side of the American dream” (“Without You”).