Review: Lana Del Rey — "Born to Die"
Since she burst onto the scene last summer with “Video Games,” Lana Del Rey (born Lizzy Grant) has tested the tensile strength of the internet hype-backlash cycle. After releasing just three tracks, Del Rey has found herself praised and vilified in equal measure by the blogosphere.
Now, after her recent flop on “Saturday Night Live,” anticipation is high for Del Rey’s major-label debut, “Born to Die,” but everyone already seems to know how he or she feels about it.
Hopefully, listeners can ignore all of the pre-release fuss and see “Born to Die” for what it is: a passable introduction to an interesting new voice in pop music.
Many have criticized Del Rey’s “Gangster Nancy Sinatra” rebranding as cynical, but it’s freed her to explore different sides of the American woman, all of them exaggerated, decadent, heartbroken and deadly. She’s Evelyn Mulwray, Jessica Rabbit, Mata Hari and Betty Draper.
Del Rey imbues all of these roles with her low purr, but the album’s distinctive sound comes not from Del Rey’s voice, but from its excellent production. It’s all swoony melodramatic strings with hip-hop flourishes, and when it works, the results are captivating.
“Born to Die” gets Del Rey’s three buzzed-about singles out of the way quickly and is better for it. “Video Games” is still a highlight here; along with “Blue Jeans” and the title track, it introduces “Born to Die” ’s more bombastic middle-third well.
This section’s standouts, the darkly cheeky “National Anthem” and the braggy “Radio” crystallize Del Rey’s brand of slow-burn pop and detached Americana. They also prove that those initial singles weren’t flukes and allow Del Rey to transcend her meme-pop label.
That said, Del Rey’s lyrics often leave something to be desired. Part of what made “Video Games” so special was its mysteries (was Del Rey singing “It’s you, it’s all for you” with scorn or devotion?) But after a while the opaque gives way to the obtuse, and cuts on “Born to Die” that allow the production to do the heavy lifting end up having the most replay value.
Even at 40 minutes, “Born to Die” feels a little long, mostly due to its uneven final act. Del Rey would have been better served to cut a couple tracks or replace them with one of the album’s tighter bonus tracks.
“Off to the Races” in particular, is about two minutes too long, and Del Rey takes the subtlety out of her femme-fatale Lolita role with a squeaky performance. When the Lana Del Rey formula works, it really works, but it’s grating when it fails.
“Born to Die” will disappoint some. After all of the hype, everyone seems to expect it to be revelatory or a disaster, but “Born to Die” is merely a decent album of flawed yet arresting orchestral pop — and that’s okay.