Album Review: Lana Del Rey’s “Born To Die”

[First published on Switchcam’s Posterous blog on 3.9.2012]

Somewhere from the deep sea of Youtube musicians, Lana Del Rey emerged from a shell carried forth to the shore of pop consciousness by homemade music video froth. That’s about as accurate a narrative as the one Interscope wove for her, since they’re sticking to the trailer park, rags of obscurity-to-riches one. We get the feeling we’re being punked à la lonelygirl15, and critics, catching the whiff of fake, have lambasted her for inauthenticity. It’s just as well – debuting just behind Adele’s juggernaut of an album at number 2, Del Rey, neé Elizabeth Grant, knows that the fuck is for the naysayers to give.

So much has been written and debated about the 25 year-old in the mere months following her “Video Games” Youtube post last August (which served as her first single and music video). Commentary on Del Rey sometimes has less to do with her music than her look, which she describes as “Lolita got lost in the hood.” Invoking Veronica Lake by way of Twiggy by way of Lisa Rinna, Del Rey has a mesmerizing mien that, in live performances, registers at naught on a scale of one to ten. Her SNL appearance seemed as laborious for her as it was for the audiences to watch, soldiering on with the weight of the world and those lips on her shoulders.

Coincidentally, the same can be said of her album, Born To Die. There are fifteen songs, and by the time the fourth one is done playing, the album title starts to make a lot of sense. She has been compared to Adele and Amy Winehouse, which are compliments higher than her voice warrants. It’s not a bad voice – at times smoky and sultry, at others girlish and gamine – but it’s not as strong as she thinks it is.  The biggest issue is this: every voice in a song, whether it’s vocal or instrumental, exists to musically move the piece forward. Hers does not, and it’s there that Lana Del Rey’s voice falls dreadfully short. Every note sung could be the last of the song. She has taken singing to new heights of blasé.

And so Del Rey is not nearly dramatic enough for all the Lolita references; but at least she has words to play with (a few of them being Nabokov’s). Still, the lyrics are dark and seductive, if a little confused. They tell romantic tales of the misguided, societal underbelly variety. And if there is one shiny thing about the album, it’s that the production is strong, with atmospheric sounds and seductive beats to match her heavy-lidded boudoir vocals. For that, she has Emile Haynie to thank – the same guy who works with Kid Cudi – or perhaps not, for making her sound all the more caught-in-midst-of-a-REM-cycle in contrast.

The best songs on Born To Die are the usual suspects, and show up very early in the album: “Born To Die,” “Blue Jeans,” “Video Games,” and “Radio” help this hard pill of an album go down a little easier. “National Anthem” – if you can avoid it, try to. The good news is it gets easier to listen to; the bad is that repeated listening does not make it more alive.

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Adrienne is an expert on storytelling for branding and impact through video and digital content. She is a video producer and writer.