Once in a while, an editor will ask you to review an album by someone you've never heard of — just as a favor. I was instantly struck by the title of this mysterious new work: Born To Die. Sounds like a DJ Drama mix-tape series (Born To Die Volume Six: Respect the Born?), by one Lana Del Rey (we don't know if that's her real name or not). The tracklist scans as a mix of the mundane ("Diet Mountain Dew," "Video Games") and the depressing ("Dark Paradise," "Summertime Sadness"). I do like a realist. After a year of many good but low-stakes new albums, it's nice to see a total stranger coming out with the big guns.
DIE CUTS Lana Del Rey’s debut record obsesses on pop things: sex, death, “paradise,” getting high, money, and — by extension — fame.
The opening track, "Born To Die," ushers in orchestral flourishes amidst an echoey hip-hop beat, and I immediately think of Kanye West's "Good Morning," the similarly reverberating opener to Graduation, and the Jon Brion arrangements of his prior album, Late Registration. Overproduction never used to be my thing, but this is an oxygen bar after the suffocating deluge of lo-fi chillwave, watery swag rap, and "hazy" indie-rock of the last few years.
As it turns out, the stoic, somewhat awkward-looking woman on the cover has a voice to match, with wobbly low notes, but she nevertheless utters phrases like "Keep making me laugh/Let's go get high" and "You like your girls insane."
By the second song, it's obvious — Del Rey means "die" in the James Dean sense. On "Off to the Races" she's sort of rapping, about and to an "old man" who "loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart." If she were a better singer, I'd say this woman could be the next Amy Winehouse — but she isn't any kind of soul diva. Maybe teen idol chamber music? I flash on the Cardigans, Holly Golightly, and now that she's syncopating to a beat, Lily Allen. But this is more overt and scenic. And porny. The cello-voiced mutant of the opener transforms into a helium-jailbait (literally— she's crooning to her "old man" in Rikers) dolly to deliver the come-on — "I'm your little harlot, starlet" — in her horniest squeak.
For a debut, Del Rey's themes are startlingly realized, such as the blessing and/or curse of her femininity, a touchy subject about which she veers from euphoric make-believe to cold resentment in "Video Games." Here she imitates Nick Cave's horror moan (complete with distant bell toll!) in order to sing about popping beers and playing video games— as far from that prison fantasy as she can get. Over twinkling harp and piano, she sings— either cruelly or ironically, or both— "Only worth living if somebody is loving you." Similarly, the soaring "National Anthem" is all about money ("Before we go out/What's your address?"), and Del Rey tries hard to celebrate and smile through gritted teeth. I wouldn't want to be an untested new talent on Jimmy Iovine's label either — that's a lot of pressure. You might as well throw her on Saturday Night Live or into a full moat of piranhas.
: Music Features
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