Norman Fucking Rockwell!

Americana incarnate, Lana Del Rey finally arrives on her fifth album, which shows the culmination of the skills she had spent honing over the seven years since her debut, Born To Die, arrived on shelves back in 2012. That’s not to say Del Rey hasn’t released good music before – that debut was important in defining the music of the latter 2010s and played a key part in creating the taste palate of many a tumblr blogger – but that Norman Fucking Rockwell! stands so high above its peers that you can feel her legacy shift as you listen to it. Before NFR, she was a big name gradually earning the critical acclaim that had been so unceremoniously denied of her during the 2012 pop culture obsession with ‘authenticity’, but here, in a post NFR world, she is being named one of America’s greatest living songwriters by none other than Pitchfork, the very website which gave her debut a measly rating of 5.5, equating the release to a ‘faked orgasm’.

Since the generally lukewarm, and sometimes outright hostile, reception of her debut album from the press however, Del Rey managed to gradually recover, releasing a string of albums which drifted further and further into atmospheric territory, leaving her R’n’B and pop influences behind her. After the critically well-received, but somewhat less popular with the public, Honeymoon, Del Rey attempted to court the public once more with Lust For Life, an album that, while regarded by the press as superior to her debut, is often seen by the fans as the weakest album in her discography. Things changed in its wake though, as Del Rey began to hang out in the studio with the multi-talented Jack Antonoff and found herself drifting into a new, folk inspired sound that allowed more space for her wandering lyrics while still keeping things more sonically present and upfront than previous ventures on Honeymoon.

One of the criticisms that has hounded Del Rey through her career is that her lyrics can feel dated, or that she’s pushing a tired ‘star in the wrong era’ aesthetic. With NFR, Del Rey continues to bring in influences from the 50s and 60s to her music, but whereas its previously started to drift a little towards pastiche, she manages to get the balance just right, creating an album that feels truly timeless. Arriving in 2019, three years into the Trump presidency and just a few months before the 2020 US Election really began kicking into full gear, NFR succeeds in capturing the atmosphere of its time without falling into the trap of sounding ‘of a time’. The marriage of social criticism and this type of music isn’t anything new – folk and folk adjacent singers have been doing it for years – but its rarely done as well as it is here.

Even on an album as uniformly great as NFR however, there are standouts. California, with its desperate plea to a friend or lover in a dire situation hangs in the air and catches in your throat as Del Rey soars into the chorus, and the beautiful simplicity of Love Song falls over you like a blanket as it wraps itself around you. Everything pales however, to the grandiose The Greatest – inarguably the best song that Del Rey has ever produced, and what might be the best summary of millennial ennui to have ever been put on record – a deep longing for rock’n’roll from a time none of us where even alive, a deep-seated sadness at its core and a difficult-to-deal-with feeling that armaggedon waits around the corner while nobody does anything to prevent it. The song is epic, a brilliant way to puncture the general calmness of the latter half of the record, and shows just how disparate Del Rey’s influences have become. If there’s one song that feels like it captures the vibe of Trump’s US, it’s this one.

NFR has had a significant impact on Del Rey – follow up record Chemtrails Over The Country Club is a further dive into the sound that she birthed here, but it doesn’t quite have the same underlying grit that makes NFR so alluring to listen to. Since releasing Chemtrails, Del Rey has already begun teasing her next album, Blue Bannisters, originally planned for release this month, but, in true Del Rey fashion, has yet to be released. Once again Del Rey seems to be exploring her post NFR sound, suggesting that Del Rey herself is just as taken with its sound as everyone else is. Hopefully she manages to recapture some of the earthiness that elevated NFR and made it into a standout of Del Rey’s discography.

One thought on “Norman Fucking Rockwell!

  1. Excellent post. Does what every piece like this should do – and make you want to listen to the music. Great album title too by the way, disrespecting a painter who visually defined Americana – and, for many years, the way mainstream America saw itself. Always felt Lana Del Rey was underrated.

    Like

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