Just over four years ago, Lana Del Rey released her fifth studio album, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” To this day, the album continues to revel in its razor-sharp poeticism detailing the past, present, and future atop a compendium of expansive rock stylings.
A swell of strings and piano foregrounds the opening and title track of the record, leading the listener to Del Rey’s comically cheeky first line: “Godamn, man child/You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you.’” She details the tug of war between her layabout lover and herself, running through a list of complaints before shrugging them off with a simple “‘Cause you're just a man/It’s just what you do.” Her voice is crisp as ever and languorously fades alongside the piano as the introductory strings return to round out the song.
This game of push and pull follows a loose storyline throughout the album, with Del Rey refusing to throw the towel in no matter how intermittent her companion’s affection can be. On the cinematic synth-driven “Cinnamon Girl,” her partner’s “violet, blue, green, red” addiction stands no chance for her imploring. Whether critics find her stance as “unwoke” or “anti-feminist” is not of interest to her. As she’s always maintained, those who criticize surely just don’t understand her position.
Perhaps NPR’s Ann Powers said it best in 2019: “Lana Del Rey lives in America’s Messy Subconscious.” Del Rey’s idyllic momentos are juxtaposed by the not-so-pristine realities of life in modern America that she’s come to understand more. But these juxtapositions are not limited to her political consciousness.
Within the very intentional homage to classic American art on the album cover, Del Rey contradicts the reference by sporting a cropped neon green windbreaker straight out of 2019. Rather than undermining her intended visual and sonic homages, her contradictions reflect the cultural landscape that she occupies. To her, America is the promiseland, but it’s also in great peril. Los Angeles shimmers with glitter and gold, but the Hollywood sign becomes illuminated by impending wildfires. Regardless of how far-out her references and juxtapositions may be, it’s within them that makes Del Rey pop’s subverted commander.
Taking a pause from the friction between her and her poet sweetheart, Del Rey dives deep into nostalgic contemplations on the soaring nine minute freak-out, “Venice Bitch.” Acoustic guitar strums and keyboard notes lead the listener into the song as she evokes the image of late summer nights on the brink of season’s end. “You’re in the yard, I light the fire/And as the summer fades away/Nothing gold can stay,” she sings softly. Added drums and synthesizers quickly transform the sweet summer ballad into a psychedelic rock jam. Within its treacly specificity, “Venice Bitch” offers listeners an blissful escape from reality — and preludes Del Rey’s own desire for escape later in the album.
Near the end of the album is perhaps Del Rey’s most reflective song to date: “The greatest.” Leading the listener along with electric guitar saturated in reverb and a simple keyboard backing, she shares memories of old that paint a strikingly vivid contemplation of present day culture. Her disillusionment arrives not only in relation to the modern political landscape, but in relation to fame and culture as a whole. “If this is it, I’m signing off,” she whispers, expressing her dissatisfaction with the way things are going. She sings of “missing New York,” and that “me and my friends, we miss rock ‘n’ roll,” likely referencing the booming music scene spawned at New York clubs like CBGB and Fillmore East in the 1970’s. Though Del Rey herself was not born until 1985, she retreats from the present day by longing for the idealized glory days of rock ‘n’ roll that she believes would better suit her.
Del Rey breaks the “fourth wall” at the end of the song, singing “Hawaii just missed a fireball/L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot/Kanye West is blond and gone,” to demonstrate just how bleak the world can feel at times. Afterall, as she argues, “‘Life on Mars?’ ain’t just a song,” implying that if she could, she’d join Bowie’s subject in a utopia far away from Earth’s (and specifically America’s) tragedies.
Del Rey’s flag-waving live-fast-die-young Americana idealism has faded, and she begins to question her country’s makeup beneath its distorted exterior. Her memories may still be tinged with a rose-colored hue, but she begins to ponder the authenticity and morality of them. Though she will likely forever possess a certain level of idealism in her work, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” marks the “wake-up” of sorts from her romanticization of both American life and her relationships with others.