Student Writer | Tau Nell
Lana Del Rey is best known for the starry-eyed scenes she paints using her sultry contralto voice of an America that was, and one that could have been. Her misadventures have led her to sing of Bel Air lovers, of speeding along the California coast, and of being the enchanting arm candy of leather-clad bikers. Her work thus far has remained in familiar territory: themes of Hollywood glamour, doomed romance, and celebrity ennui permeate virtually every track on each of her previous albums. While we have seen glimpses of character development in tracks such as Love, where Del Rey shifts her source of validation from her undeserving beaus to herself and her fans, her persona and sound have never undergone a dramatic transformation until 2019’s Norman F*cking Rockwell! (NFR).
Where before she wept ‘I’m nothing without you’, Lana now declares ‘I’m the bolt, the lightning the thunder’. But she does not keep this new-found exuberance to herself; she assures fans ‘You lose your way, just take my hand / You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again’ in the nautical ballad Mariner’s Apartment Complex. In the reflective How to Disappear, she promises ‘I’m always going to be right here / No one’s going anywhere’.
Even with its soothing lyrics and serene instrumentals, NFR is a force of nature. This is the album of an empowered artist who knows her own mind. Lana has discarded her characteristic cinematic overtures, favouring piano and electric guitar, exposing an intense emotionality which before was lost in looming orchestral soundscapes. In NFR, this emotionality is not always one characterised by Del Rey’s signature melancholia – she is quite the comedian in her refreshing bluntness. In the title track, Lana expresses exasperation at her current lover, dubbing him ‘goddamn man-child’ and ‘Laurel Canyon know-it-all’. She cheerfully justifies her choice by asking ‘why wait for the best when I could have you?’.
Del Rey proves to us throughout this album that she is the master of her own destiny. While seasoned fans rejoice at this rare opportunity to get to know the enigmatic star, casual listeners may tire of nine-minute epics such as Venice B*tch, or be mystified by reference-heavy sagas such as Bartender. NFR is not for everyone. It is less accessible than Del Rey’s more pop-influenced albums, but what it lacks in accessibility and headbanger tracks it makes up for in lyrical substance and musical authenticity.
NFR is a testament to the times. On the album’s title, Del Rey told Pitchfork: ’This is where we’re at – Norman f*cking Rockwell. We’re going to go to Mars, and Trump is president’. Indeed, we find ourselves in a strange and surreal era – NFR’s cover art reflects this perfectly: California burns in the distance as Lana and her companion gaze helplessly from their sailing boat, unable to do anything but watch the chaos unfold. But amid all the uncertainty, Lana Del Rey reaches out to take us with her for the ride.