There’s nothing quite like kicking off an album with “God damn, man-child / You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you'” to let the general public know that you’re not playing by the general rules of commercial pop music. But that’s what happens on the title track of Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana Del Rey’s latest studio album and perhaps her most cohesive and direct so far.
Del Rey has often rooted her music in heartbreak, depression, and the crumbling American Dream, but on Norman Fucking Rockwell, she drapes those themes in the distinctive musical aura of 1970s Hollywood. Lush, Randy Newmanesque arrangements, major seventh piano chords straight out of vintage Warren Zevon, and a variety of Joni Mitchellisms color Del Rey’s deadpan sadness and sweeping resignation. This is an album that should come with a bottle of Quaaludes and a weekend reservation at the Chateau Marmont.
Like her similarly inspired counterpart, Father John Misty – who appeared in one of her videos and covered one of her songs – Del Rey effectively connects her old soul mentality to contemporary culture. It’s not just lyrical references to iPads and GPS pin-drops; her propensity for profanity would appear, in lesser hands, as gratuitous shock value. Here, it’s merely her most naked way to express dissatisfaction and disappointment. Her bluntness fits the material like a glove.
The downbeat, piano-led arrangements remain remarkably consistent throughout Norman Fucking Rockwell, with odd, David Lynchian touches giving the songs an almost Gothic creepiness. The dark majesty of the title track devolves near its conclusion, as Del Rey’s ethereal vocalizing is overtaken by psychedelic effects as if the song is being swallowed whole, regal French horns and all. It’s about a pretentious party-goer: “Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all / You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you.”
There are nods to a more contemporary style which hark back to Del Rey’s earlier work. The nihilistic valentine “Fuck It I Love You” has a modern pop song propulsion, as does the album’s lone cover, Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” which rolls along on a sultry trip-hop vibe. At first blush, it seems like an anomaly to the rest of the album’s more sophisticated touchstones (who covers Sublime besides Sublime cover bands?), but Del Rey is smartly refocusing her L.A. culture lens from the ’70s to the ’90s, providing a welcome change of context.
Overall, Norman Fucking Rockwell immerses itself in the lost art of the album. There are singles here, but the songs all hang together beautifully as a cohesive collection. True to classic album tropes, Norman Fucking Rockwell even includes a bona fide epic in the dense, multilayered “Venice Bitch”. It starts as almost claustrophobic, minor-key folk. But the psychedelic goods are eventually delivered via subtle, trippy synths, thunderclaps of space-rock guitar and eerie choruses repeated like mantras. It’s like a miniature rock opera produced by Jim O’Rourke.
Regardless of the nods to Jim O’Rourke, Van Dyke Parks, Robbie Robertson, or whoever else’s control room mojo is seeping through the album, Norman Fucking Rockwell was produced primarily by Del Rey and Jack Antonoff, best known for his work in the bands the Bleachers and Fun., as well as a producer of recent works by Taylor Swift, St. Vincent and Lorde. Despite his history of occasionally overt pop leanings, Antonoff helps Del Rey craft a work of truly inspired creativity, and one that doesn’t seem to follow a standard template.
“How to Disappear” is a fuzzy, languid slice of 1950s torch song soul, and it’s followed by a more modern – yet still intense – “California”, in which Del Rey suggests an ex-lover come back to the Golden State, with some not-so-subtle references to Joni Mitchell’s song of the same name. “We’ll have a party / We’ll dance ’til dawn,” she sings. “I’ll pick up all of your Vogues, and all of your Rolling Stones / Your favorite liquor off the top shelf / I’ll throw a party all night long.” Later, in the song “The Greatest”, Del Rey continues to sing the praises of her adopted state. “I miss Long Beach, and I miss you, babe / I miss dancing with you the most of all / I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go / Dennis’ last stop before Kokomo.”
Norman Fucking Rockwell is backloaded with a pair of sparsely arranged tracks that pack an emotional punch. “Happiness Is a Butterfly” contains some of Del Rey’s more direct lyrics on an already wickedly honest album. “If he’s a serial killer/ Then what’s the worst that can happen to a girl who’s already hurt? / I’m already hurt.” Backed only by piano and orchestra, the effect is both utterly gorgeous and downright chilling. On the closing track “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It”, Del Rey, accompanied only by piano, sings “I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown / 24/7 Sylvia Plath / Writing in blood on my walls / ‘Cause the ink in my pen don’t work in my notepad.”
“Nothing gold can stay,” Del Rey sings in “Venice Bitch,” a line she first sang in her 2015 single “Music to Watch Boys To”. But the original author is Robert Frost, as it was the title of a poem he wrote in 1923. The sentiment may be nearly a century old, but Del Rey takes its meaning to heart in the present. She sees the beauty in everyday life, but she’s also a stark realist. Norman Fucking Rockwell is Lana Del Rey unfiltered, full of beauty, emotion, heartbreak, and devastation.