Fuck it. It’s finally here! After think-pieces on gender, authenticity, and what being indie means, we finally have the music behind the blogosphere’s latest obsession. And really, that’s what’s important for artists: the music. “But her real name is Lizzie Grant, and she has a millionaire dad!” Yeah, and? David Bowie pretended to be a space alien while making one of the best albums ever, and I’m pretty sure whoever Stefani Germanotta was got lost a long time ago.
In Ranting About Music’s own Lana piece, I mentioned that I really wanted to reserve judgment for when Born to Die came out, mostly because we had so little to go off of before its release, and partly because I wanted it to be…better. “Video Games” was a great first single, but the other songs eeked out in pre-release didn’t capture that same spark, no matter how hard the tried (coughcough “Born to Die” coughcough). Unfortunately, the same is true for most of Born to Die: it’s essentially “Video Games” with 11 (or 14, if you got the shiny deluxe version) songs standing in its shadow.
I mention “Video Games” because, aside from most likely being the first song written for this album, it also serves as the record’s blueprint. If you loved the reverby, synth string and piano minimalist production of “Video Games”, then good news: you’re going to be hearing that all the fuck over on Born to Die. Produced by hip-hop veteran Emile Haynie, the album’s main sonic concept is melodramatic, atmospheric pop combined with hip-hop beats.
While it’s a clever idea, it’s never developed much over the album’s 50 minute runtime, and suffers greatly for it. Last year’s dark, hip-hop/pop hybrid Take Care worked because Drake had the charisma to make such an empty soundscape compelling (not to mention some solid writing–more on that later–and the fact that even Take Care had some robust moments). Del Rey’s wallflower-at-karaoke stage presence isn’t especially drawing, and when the production wears thin, so does she. Songs like “Million Dollar Man” and “Summertime Sadness” get lost in their own doe-eyed pout, leaving listeners to space out.
More than anything else, what really hurts Born to Die is that it blends its good and bad too well. For the times where the production does something interesting like on the cinematic thrill of “Off to the Races”, the lyrics tank. When everything’s looking good, the songs go on too long; I always expect “Video Games” and “Born to Die” to end about a minute before they actually do. Sometimes Del Rey’s voices takes a random pitch change when I don’t expect it to; she switches from her lower “I’m trying to be sultry” sultry alto to an almost annoying Baby Doll-like head voice.
Some songs still come out on top, though. “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” still sound fresh, and new cuts “Radio” and “Dark Paradise” stick better than most of the other material. “Dark Paradise” is pretty standard as far as ballads go, but the lyrics, Lana, and the production are all actively engaged. “Radio” is the smoothest pop song on the album, and bolstered by some choral work. It’s calm, catchy, and graceful.
That same grace, or lack thereof, is what really makes the bad songs bad. “Diet Mtn Dew” uses one of the clunkiest metaphors on earth (“You’re no good for me/But I want you, I want you” It’s like how she feels about the soft drink, but also her boyfriend, ha!) with lyrics to match. Also, here and on other dud of note “National Anthem”, Del Rey uses a weirdly Ke$ha-esque sing-talk-rap hybrid that just doesn’t work. It all gets back to confidence, and Del Rey just doesn’t sound like she has the flair for the delivery.
When I did my mini LDR preview, I called the lyrics one of the strongest draws. After dealing with plenty of misfires across Born to Die, hearing Del Rey randomly coo “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice” on “This Is What Makes Us Girls” was the final nail in the coffin to this album’s lyrics. Hearing lines like, “Fire of my loins”, “Take Jesus off the dashboard/Got enough on his mind”, and “Money is the reason we exist/Everybody knows it’s a fact/Kiss, kiss” played completely straight leaves a lot to be desired, and–like the production–what’s good about Born to Die lyrically isn’t developed much beyond its initial pitch (admittedly, “Video Games” is still a lyrical homerun, and she can still get a good line in every now and then; see: “You look like a million dollar man/So why is my heart broke?”). There’s also something in the record’s romantic bend that’s off-putting; Del Rey’s always pouting and prancing for the somewhat callous guy that never cares enough, but she’s hopelessly devoted to her “bad boy”, anyway. Pitchfork quipped that Del Rey never got beyond “an ice cone licking object of male desire” and “a faked orgasm”; I just can’t top that.
Defenders may say that the world wasn’t ready for Born to Die, but I don’t think Lana Del Rey was ready for Born to Die. I genuinely think that she could have a long run of success, but she needs to develop and grow more as an artist before that’s possible; gain some confidence, polish her writing, and expand her sound. As for this record, it has a few songs that I’ll keep in mind, but more that I’m ok letting go, two and a half stars out of five.
tl;dr: A star isn’t Born, 2.5/5.