Lana Del Rey will likely go down as one of the most iconic pop stars of the 2010s, not least because of the questions she raises (and the anxieties she provokes) about authenticity, irony, and nostalgia. Throughout her already storied career, it has been ambiguous which aspects of her persona are “genuine”, and which, if any, are presented with a sly, knowing wink. At first, critics did not quite know what to make of this facile conundrum, and early readings of Del Rey’s 2012 debut Born to Die tore into the album for its apparent artifice.
Though Del Rey has courted such controversy and speculation about her persona, she has also on occasion broken the fourth wall to demand proper recognition for her artistry. “They judge me like a picture book / By the colors, like they forgot to read,” she lamented on “Brooklyn Baby”, from her sophomore album Ultraviolence. On her latest release and fourth LP, Lust for Life, she once again seeks to escape from the warped prism of public perception, beseeching, “Take me as I am, don’t see me for what I’m not” on “God Bless America – and All the Beautiful Women in It”.
Indeed, though little has fundamentally changed in Del Rey’s aesthetic philosophy over her four studio albums, she has carved out a space for herself in the universe of music criticism through sheer resilience. It has become somewhat old hat to litigate Del Rey’s (in)authenticity, and instead more pertinent to theorize the statements she makes in weaving her musical maze of images, icons, and collective pop cultural memories.
Lust for Life arrives at the most established and stable point in her career thus far, then. The familiar tropes are all here: she overtly pays homage to pop music from the 1960s and ’70s, naming the album itself after Iggy Pop’s 1977 record of the same name and offering to be “your tiny dancer” on “Tomorrow Never Came”, to name just a few. And yet, the first half of the record is also as hip-hop-infused as Del Rey’s music has been since Born to Die. She seamlessly weaves features from A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti into her aesthetic on “Summer Bummer”, the slow, bass-heavy beats mitigating the glacial plodding that characterized so much of her previous album, Honeymoon.
The album becomes more pensive and emotive toward its second half, particularly in its final third or so. With song titles like “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems” and “Heroin”, there are several warning signs of Del Rey’s unfortunate vice of romanticizing pain and tragedy. In actuality, though, she tackles the subject matter with grace and empathy. The latter track, allusions to the Charles Manson murders notwithstanding, ranks with previous Del Rey triumphs like Ultraviolence‘s “Old Money” in its somber, melodic poignancy.
Lust for Life postures itself above all as Lana Del Rey’s most optimistic, political, and globally conscious record to date. Much in the same way that Katy Perry has begun making so-called “purposeful pop”, here Del Rey questions her role as a musician in ushering in a better world. These moments are most effective when tempered with personal nuance, as on “Change”, an expressive, evocative piano number that reverberates with pain as much as it yearns for peacefulness. “There’s something in the wind, I can feel it blowing in / It’s coming in softly on the wings of a song,” she sings, clearly positing a role for musicians in crafting utopia. Less effective, though, is the inane “Coachella – Woodstock in my Mind”, which for some reason uses the titular music festival as a symbol for all that’s good and in need of preservation in the world.
At 16 tracks, Lust for Life is overlong and sometimes unfocused, with inevitable dips in quality here and there. The album’s poppiest moments, like “Love” and “Lust for Life”, shimmer with Del Rey’s newfound optimism, but even these can ring somewhat hollow compared with the smoky menace of her past work, or the incisive pathos of this record’s deep cuts. On the gorgeous closer “Get Free”, she maintains an ambivalent hopefulness for the future, at first despairing over the elusiveness of progress (“There’s no more chasing rainbows / And hoping for an end to them / Their arches are illusions”), while still maintaining, “I want to move out of the black / Into the blue”. It is in achieving this tension between holding and releasing the pain that Lust for Life feels most poignant and, indeed, most purposeful, charting a compelling and believable map for the future.