Album review: Lana Del Rey, ‘Born to Die’ (Interscope)

January 31, 2012

No critic of popular music can avoid a good spirited debate about “authenticity”—Bon Iver is for real, man! Odd Future is a phony hype! Etc., etc., ad infinitum/nauseum—but the perfect storm of gossip, slander, speculation, classism, sexism, attack, defense, love, hate, backlash, and backlash to the backlash** enveloping Lake Placid, New York native Lizzy Grant-turned-25-year-old retro chanteuse Lana Del Rey is just plain migraine-inducing and ultimately as unrewarding as her music, and that is the real problem here. So what say we keep the focus on the tunes?

With lush orchestral backings spiced up here and there with more modern flourishes—the jarring “street beat” and odd electronic pastiche of borderline white noise percolating behind the session players on “Off to the Races,” for example—Del Rey seems to be aiming less for her much-quoted goal of evoking “the gangsta Nancy Sinatra” than for an odd and unnatural merger of Julee Cruise and Lily Allen for an audience that probably is unfamiliar with both. But she doesn’t have the sensual, otherworldly allure of the former, and she certainly lacks the sassy street smarts and sense of humor of the latter, much less the ability to fill Sinatra’s boots.

“You’re no good for me/But baby I want you, I want you,” the singer declares to the object of her desires in “Diet Mountain Dew,” coming on like Olivia Newton-John post-bad-girl rebirth in Grease—which is to say, not entirely sincerely. Of course, she could just be singing about the ultra-caffeinated, unnaturally-colored soft drink, which would have been weird but funny. Alas, she gets a lot more specific in most other tunes: “Blue jeans, white shirt/Walked into the room/You know you make my eyes burn/It was like James Dean for sure/You’re so fresh to death and sick as cancer/You were full of punk rock/I grew up on hip hop/You’re no good for me, but baby I want you, I want you.”

Again, the absolute lack of any hint of passion in Del Rey’s vocals makes lines like those hard to buy. Then there’s the fact that her understanding of and appropriation from hip-hop is as superficial as the most superficial rappers, with nothing but lots of brand-namedropping, bling-boasting, and empty repeated refrains like, “Money is the anthem of success.” (If only she’d listened to more Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliott and less Lil’ Wayne!) But the biggest hurdle of all is the singing, which ranges from flat, constipated cooing to monotonous, one-dimensional chanting. And that is just no range—and, even worse, no fun—at all.

Rating on the four-star scale: 1 star.

** If you’re unfamiliar with any of the aforementioned, read Jessica Hopper’s admirable attempt to parse fact from fiction for Spin. And, in case you missed it, here is one of two much-debated performances from Saturday Night Live, which really is no better or worse than Del Rey on album.