On her latest LP and sixth studio album “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”, Lana Del Rey pens a troubled homage to an America that is caught between a rich history of art and poetry, and a future that grows increasingly grim in light of modern politics. Del Rey offers no solutions, but instead attempts to write her own American history — nostalgic, confused, fractured, yet above all, hopeful.
In the opening and title track, it is apparent that the singer intends to pull no punches in discussing her political convictions — even as she juxtaposes them with her familiar romantic lamentations, wilting beauty and astoundingly fast cars. This opening signals that the rest of the album is far more political than Del Rey’s earlier work; the tracks also create a near anthology of the singer’s chosen hallmarks of American art, poetry and pop culture.
Though Del Rey’s curated references are a bit cliché as she cites the likes of Robert Frost, David Bowie and even Kanye West, they are presented modestly enough in her collaborations with industry-respected producer Jack Antonoff.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Del Rey recalled sitting down to pen the title track and exchanging ideas with Antonoff about how she was staring at the face of a modern America that distorted her understanding of the American Dream.
“It was weird how that actual title came to me. I was riffing over a couple of chords that Jack was playing for the title track, which ended up being called ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell.’ It was kind of an exclamation mark: so this is the American dream, right now. This is where we’re at — Norman fucking Rockwell. We’re going to go to Mars, and Trump is president, all right,” she said.
Within the track itself, the singer croons about a disappointing lover across the soundscape of a sprawling, lonely piano melody. The singer introduces him as a “goddamn manchild” who has almost deceived her into loving him, despite his unsophisticated poetry and self-indulgent monologuing. The singer laments about how she knows that she is settling for a broken man whom she can’t change despite his destructive and egotistical ways. She asks herself, “Why wait for the best when I could have you?” Politically spinning this romantic failure as a sign of the times, Del Rey reflects her criticism of self-obsessed politicians within an apathetic polity in this loveless track. She is both longing and helpless, yet unabashedly hopeful, even if she becomes self-effacing by refusing to do better for herself.
This tone of hopeful versus helpless bleeds into the following track “Mariners Apartment Complex,” in which Del Rey unmistakably voices her manifesto as a woman who “ain’t a candle in the wind,” despite often being portrayed as fragile by the media and her romantic partners. The singer explains that she doesn’t have to be saved and that she can even be the savior. The recurring promise of the chorus is: “You lose your way, just take my hand / You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again / I’m your man.”
When Del Ray performs the last line in her most gravelly, whispery voice, she makes a clear allusion to singer Leonard Cohen’s single “I’m Your Man.” This is an unsurprising homage from Del Rey because both the singer and Cohen use heavy religious imagery and share how their inner darkness continues to shift the tides of their romantic lives. This track also provided the lyricism that inspired the album artwork for “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” as Del Rey reaches out to the viewer from her ship.
While Del Rey’s vision of a political and profound work of art is admirable, the heart of the work falters past these first two tracks. The third track, “Venice Bitch,” feels like a well-intended nod to Del Rey’s past, but is ultimately confused and corny when she refers to herself over and over as a “Venice bitch” arguably the least attractive motif of the entire album. Additional thematic distractions appear in Antonoff’s production around this point in the album as the soft rock sound of the early 2000s dominates the instrumental portions of “Venice Bitch.”
If this break in sound was not disappointing enough, Del Rey was poorly advised in including a cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” on the album. Though the song does fall in line with the singer’s fetishizing of summertime darkness in her home of California, it is blasé and uninspired at best. The same goes for the following tracks “Love song,” “Cinnamon Girl” and “How to disappear,” which were wisely situated in the middle of the album. These will not be known as Del Rey’s strongest works — they feel like thematically lazy filler tracks, making them easily the most forgettable tracks of the entire album.
Del Rey, however, redeems her name as a songwriter on “California.” While the titling of this track is unimpressive, the song itself is based enough in the sultry, timeless sound that made Del Rey, and yet it is nuanced enough to show a side of the singer that is ashamed and authentic in her longing. This is a particularly melancholic love song that admits a sense of failure on the singer’s end as she croons about how she wishes she had been more receptive to her lover’s pain and sorrow.
She tells him, “You don’t ever have to be stronger than you really are,” even though this message is clearly delivered too late. She is pleading not only with this lover, but with fate as well, trying to demonstrate that they can live the way he wants to in a bacchanalian fervor when he “come[s] back to California” — as if that could erase all the sadness that drove him from his home and their love. While this is a song of deep desire, it beats against itself in waves of nonchalant passivity and fighting to admit the fear of her lover never returning.
In “California,” Del Rey’s mastery of ironically expressing her willingness to put aside her fast cars and stardom to take her lover into her arms marks the peak of the album, which begins to tamp down across the tracks “The Next Best American Record” and “The greatest.” The latter track feels like a cheaper version of Father John Misty’s “Bored in the USA” as it explores virtually the same ideas, but far less articulately through a copy-cat chord progression. Despite paying homage to Misty earlier in her album, Del Rey undermines her own talent as she borrows the content and irony of an artist who has mastered his own sound far better than she ever will.
Despite faltering in creating her own vision of a musical mélange of broken American history, Del Rey manages to land the album as a moderate success with her closing track, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it.”
This is interestingly the only track on the album that features no capitalization at all, so the visual format of the title reifies the heart of the tune as well. Del Rey sounds resigned to the current melancholic state she occupies personally and politically, even as she sings about hope. She paints herself as a modern-day poet — a “24/7 Sylvia Plath,” who is an interesting artist to juxtapose herself with given Plath’s suicidal ending is hardly a symbol of hope.
Building her case for hope around this tragic irony, it is almost as if the singer has already given up. However, the slight melodic rises shine through as the true heart of hope: Del Rey repeats to the point of her voice breaking, “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have.” Her failure to cease demonstrates that, yes, Del Rey does have hope, which is perhaps what distinguishes her from Plath.
As the album fades out, the listener is left wondering where this hope will take Lana Del Rey and whether it’s enough to save her from the broken version of the American dream that looms over her, and us all. While this is not Del Rey’s strongest work, it is not easy to write off as a complete failure of an album. Aside from pulling off the miracle of having Jack Antonoff not overstep as a producer, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is a dense and idealistic work that experiences many small successes in its poetic intricacies. It’s a complex American ode that is so broken, but so ready to forgive what has been offended, all in the name of hope.