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Lana Del Rey hits her goddamn stride with 'Norman Fucking Rockwell'

Lana Del Rey at the Target Center in January 2017.

Lana Del Rey at the Target Center in January 2017. Steven Cohen

With “Video Games” eight years ago, Lana Del Rey emerged as Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, the Adams Memorial given flesh. On Norman Fucking Rockwell, she hits a new peak of affected languor. 

Positioning herself as kin to a century’s worth of faded movie-star glam has made her an expert on the bullshit we tell ourselves and share with others. Instead of cooing “I’m a Slave 4 U” or writhing on stage in a wedding dress, Del Rey threw down “I fucked my way up to the top” as a dare: She was subject and object. The album title offers a clue as to her next trick. By spray-painting a profanity on the twentieth century’s most infamous purveyor of golly-gee pop art, she shows her contempt for illusions she doesn’t spare herself from believing. The title track suggests that the men in her life still don’t get it: her lover’s not just a “goddamn man child” but a lousy poet too. Even the cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” feels nasty: a vendetta against manchildren whose lousy tastes in jukebox choices turn bars into holding cells. 

If Del Rey corralled famous friends like Sean Lennon and the Weeknd into a community of woe for 2017’s Lust for Life, Norman Fucking Rockwell finds the singer alone in beshadowed rooms. Jack Antonoff’s songwriting and production are as different from his work on Taylor Swift’s Lover as Bill Callahan is from Shawn Mendes. Piano arpeggios and orchestral flourishes dominate, as ever, but they function as spotlights for a stage that’s freshly cleared for a performer at the height of her vocal prowess (“The Greatest”) and snark deployment (“Mariners Apartment Complex”). Best is “Bartender,” in which Crosby, Stills & Nash still haunt Joni Mitchell’s ladies of the canyon because Hollywood’s always got room for survivors. If you want Lana she’ll be in the bar—sipping Cherry Coke, thanks. 

To play a woman imitating a zonked-out SoCal scenester without playing the part in a zonked-out manner takes a finesse that her fourth-rate imitators will miss in a few years (and trigger questions about whether we overrated her in the first place). The more expansive are Antonoff’s instrumental touches, the wider her emotional range, the firmer her effects. Over a powdered sugar sprinkling of drum machine and the steady mournful tug of a string section in “How to Disappear,” Del Rey rides the verse melody like one of her male Venice Beach bitches does his surfboard. On “Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have But I Have It,” the Brechtian distancing underscores the impossibility of what she’s gotten away with: Del Rey’s singing is too precise for listeners to confuse her for a character running around in her nightgown, “a 24/7 Sylvia Plath.” 

The lingering on notes, the drawl—Del Rey is always ready for a closeup. But this isn’t anomie. This isn’t a refusal to feel: it’s feeling so intensely that affect becomes a strategy. Inasmuch as she has influences beyond, say, Marlene Dietrich in Morocco and Rebekah del Rio in Mulholland Drive, look to Bryan Ferry, whom many smart critics in the ‘70s assumed Didn’t Mean It because he sang like Pepe Le Pew as a headwaiter. The force of Norman Fucking Rockwell suggests Del Rey’s going to be at this for a while, her albums a continual refinement, her audience primed for laughs like the following: “But sometimes girls just wanna have fun/The poetry inside me is warm like a gun.” Fire away.