The Lowdown: In time for Labor Day weekend, Lana Del Rey dropped Norman Fucking Rockwell! — and glided in gloriously melancholy fashion to the shore of Hot Girl Summer. After nearly a year of releasing bewitching singles, the chanteuse’s sixth album features some of her most indelible lyrics and melodies to date while blending the songs into an allusive, romantic, gimlet-eyed mural of contemporary America. Del Rey remains committed to meandering ballads and hazy atmospherics, but her voice has rarely sounded so sharp, central, and clear.
The Good: Del Rey made a name for herself riding a sedated, hip-hop-inflected torch-song wave. On NFR!, she’s still surfing that swell, but now most mainstream pop and hip-hop artists seem to be bobbing in that depressive ocean, from Xanax-inspired rappers to deadpan Billie Eilish to the throaty mumbles on an Ariana Grande hit. Instead of charting a different course in 2019, Del Rey seems to become more herself. The album features expansive psych-pop lullabies, tales of complicated, consuming romantic love, and overt odes to the tarnished dream of California. Included in the last category is a delicious cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time”, which, in turn, referenced the Gershwin standard “Summertime” — a perfect layer cake of American allusions for Del Rey.
Del Rey’s own verses are chock-full of allusions, from The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson (who drowned in Marina Del Rey harbor) to ’70s Laurel Canyon, socialite photographer Slim Aarons, and The Outsiders/Robert Frost, before referring to herself as “24/7 Sylvia Plath.” Her lyrics are extraordinarily deft, featuring many memorable one-liners, but she manages to weave a vibrant, intricate tapestry without losing the emotional big picture. Take, for example, when she sings, “You took my sadness out of context/ At the Mariners Apartment Complex/ I ain’t no candle in the wind/ I’m the board, the lightning, the thunder…” (I could keep going.)
On NFR!, one can hear the connective tissue to past collaborators Stevie Nicks and Cat Power, as well as spiritual links to artists like Laura Nyro, SZA, and H.E.R. The most comparisons, however, will likely be between NFR! and the other pop juggernaut released a week earlier: Taylor Swift’s Lover. Del Rey and Swift both deal in repeated tropes of Hollywood romance and highly feminized figures and have devoted fan bases that value the songwriters’ vulnerability. Both artists worked primarily with Jack Antonoff, but while you can hear the producer’s high-energy synth-pop flourishes all over Lover, he lends an invisible hand in building Del Rey’s world. NFR! offers more gently picked acoustic guitar, steady piano, and tasteful strings in arrangements that are lush as ever, yet less muddled. In that space, Del Rey’s perspective is heard clearly — shot through with a gallows humor that rings like a kind of hope. For example, this coda found on the title track: “Hawaii just missed that fireball/ LA is in flames‚ it’s getting hot/ Kanye West is blond and gone/ ‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song/ Oh, the live stream’s almost on.”
The Bad: NFR! is aggressively mid-tempo start to finish, and while LDR has earned her crown as Queen of the Languid Parade, this feels like a missed opportunity to match the lyrical fireworks with a more urgent beat. Though NFR! marks a turn toward solitude after the many collaborations on 2017’s Lust for Life, the second half of the record could have used the energetic infusion of a guest feature — say from Frank Ocean or Harry Styles?
The Verdict: Norman Fucking Rockwell! proves (again) Del Rey as a fully-realized artist who has remained true to her obsessions — aesthetic, cultural, and personal — outlasting the misogynist criticisms that could have derailed her early career. Del Rey delivers a gaze that swivels internally and externally, that can simultaneously observe our national existential dread and her own sudden hope for a “Hallmark” love. Del Rey’s nostalgia feels useful rather than insidious; her pop saints and historical icons expand our scope beyond immediate headlines and keep her worldly heart open.
Essential Tracks: “Normal fucking Rockwell”, “Mariners Apartment Complex”; “The greatest”; “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have…but I have it”